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Free Speech on the Web

Is the internet really the bastion of free expression that we think it is?

By Jeffrey Rosen


When Internet users in the U.S. search on Google for "Tiananmen Square," the results include photos of a man blocking a column of tanks—the iconic image of the 1989 student democracy protests in China and the violent government crackdown that followed.

But the same search on Google's Chinese platform, Google.cn, yields images of Chinese soldiers raising the flag and tourists taking snapshots. No tanks. No protesters. No sign of the violence in which at least hundreds of students were killed.

That's because the Chinese government censors the Web, blocking phrases like "Tiananmen Square" and "free Tibet." And Google—eager to do business in China—cooperates by ensuring that search results on Google.cn don't include material the Chinese government doesn't want its people to see.

'The Decider'

Today, anyone with Internet access has the potential to reach a global audience. But though technology enthusiasts celebrate the explosion of free speech online, there is less focus on how the Internet is actually regulated, and by whom. And as more and more speech migrates online, the ultimate power to decide who gets heard—and who doesn't—lies increasingly with Internet service providers, search engines, and other Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, AOL, Facebook, and even eBay.

The most powerful Internet gatekeeper is California-based Google, which controls 63 percent of the world's Internet searches and also owns YouTube, the world's largest video-sharing site. This gives Google enormous influence over what millions of people see on the Web. A large part of this responsibility falls to Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, whose colleagues jokingly call her "the Decider."

Wong and her colleagues have the difficult job of deciding what controversial material appears or doesn't appear on Google.com, on its foreign search engines, and on applications like YouTube, to which 13 hours of video are uploaded every minute.

She stresses the company's main goal: to spread the open culture of the Web, while still taking into account local laws, customs, and attitudes.

"What is the mandate?" says Wong. "It's 'Be everywhere, get arrested nowhere, and thrive in as many places as possible.' "

Voluntary self-regulation by Internet companies means that, for the foreseeable future, Google will continue to exercise extraordinary power over global speech online. But can we trust a corporation to always be good—even one whose informal motto is "Don't be evil"?

"To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist. You have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about their king," says Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor and a former scholar in residence at Google.

What makes Google's policy particularly tricky is that in foreign countries, search engines and Internet providers can be held liable for content that someone posts online if the content is illegal in that country. (In the U.S., for the most part, these companies are not legally responsible for what users upload.)

In late 2006, for example, Wong and her colleagues debated what to do about a series of YouTube videos that insulted the king of Thailand, an illegal act in that country. The Thai government also wanted to ban 20 other videos that it didn't like, including ones that criticized the law against criticizing the king. It threatened to block access to YouTube entirely if Google didn't comply.

Google ultimately decided to remove the videos that were clearly against Thai law, and to ban others that were sexually explicit or included hate speech, which violates YouTube's own rules. But it refused to remove the videos in which people spoke out about the law against speaking negatively about the king. The compromise solution seemed to satisfy Thai officials.

Tech vs. Tyranny

"If stuff is clearly illegal, we take that down, but if it's on the edge, you might push a country a little bit," Wong says. "Free speech law is always built on the edge."

In fact, Google doesn't always satisfy foreign governments, or even get the chance to. In recent years, Google and its various applications have been blocked, to different degrees, by 24 countries. For example, Blogger, a publishing tool, is blocked in Pakistan, and Orkut, a social-networking site, in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, it's not surprising that repressive regimes fear the Internet, just as they've feared any new technology in the past that threatened their control. During the Orange Revolution in 2004 in Ukraine (formerly a part of the Soviet Union), online forums and text-messaging helped topple a corrupt government. In 2007, when the generals who run the Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, were embarrassed by videos showing their brutal crackdown against a peaceful protest, they shut down the Internet for two weeks.

Google is in fact more friendly to free speech than the governments of most of the countries in which it operates. But even many of those who are impressed by the work of Wong and her colleagues say Google's "decider" model is impractical in the long run because, as broadband use expands, it will be unrealistic for a small group of people to make decisions about permissible speech for the entire world.

"It's a 24-hour potential problem, every moment of the day, and because of what the foreign governments can do, like put people in jail, it creates a series of issues that are very, very difficult to deal with," says David Gross of the State Department.

Wu, the law professor, says there is also the question of whether Google will continue its current policies. What if Google allowed its automated Web crawlers (programs that methodically browse the Web) to be used for arguably positive purposes like assisting national-security agencies in the battle against terrorism?

"Under pressure to fight terrorism or to pacify repressive governments," says Wu, "Google could track everything we've searched for, everything we're writing on g-mail, everything we're writing on Google docs, to figure out who we are and what we do. It would make the Internet a much scarier place for free expression."

Even Google officials don't deny that their current methods for policing free speech online may not work forever.

"We're at the dawn of a new technology," says Kent Walker, Google's general counsel. "We've built this spaceship, but we really don't know where it will take us."