Google Versus Governments

Google has been in the news a lot lately, and most of its recent media coverage has involved the company’s wrangles with two of the most powerful governments in the world: the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. And if that weren’t enough, it seems to be heading for a conflict with the European Union (EU) over Internet regulation (more on that in a minute).

 

The first instance involved the company’s denial to share its search records with investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ has sought that data to help it enforce Child Online Protection Act, which is designed to keep young people from accessing obscene material via the Internet. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said his organization has an obligation to protect its users’ privacy rights, and that it would resist the DOJ’s request through legal channels. The first test will come on Feb. 27, when a federal judge will review Google’s decision at a hearing in San Jose, Calif.

 

Google’s issues with China stem from censorship. The Chinese government would not permit the search engine to be used by citizens of that country unless Google agreed to expurgate Web pages deemed subversive to the state. Finally, after years of deliberation, the company relented recently. The new www.google.cn will limit users’ access to Web sites that deal with sensitive topics such as Taiwan, Tibet and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as well as seemingly innocuous content such as non-political humor and alcohol.

 

Finally, the company is approaching a dispute with an EU commission over a proposal to extend its Television Without Frontiers directive (TWFD) to include any video content shown on the Internet. If passed when put to a vote later this year, the commission will have the power to regulate any Web-based video content that originates in an EU country. In addition to the restricted speech implications, critics point out that regulations might prove ineffectual, as offenders can simply move outside the EU and continue to produce their video products.

 

Many people probably wonder what the people running Google are thinking. After all, on the surface it seems like the company has rejected its own government’s request for information that would keep children from seeing and reading some of the filthiest things on the Internet, while cooperating with one of the world’s foremost authoritarian regimes’ requests for censorship. However, although I’m no cheerleader for Google, I think the company made the right decisions in each of these situations.

 

First of all, as Brin correctly pointed out, the DOJ’s demand sets a negative precedent in our free society. This could wind up being a slippery slope. Today it’s obscenity, tomorrow it could be terrorism, but then what? How many times will the government be permitted to access search records, and for what ends? Political criticism and satire? Support for the opposition parties? Our history indicates that when we give the government an inch, it will take a mile. Just look at income taxes: Whether you think they’re right or not, the fact is that income tax levels have risen exponentially since the 16th Amendment was ratified in 1913.

 

With regard to the China decision, Google acted pragmatically. Although they did agree to some regulation of Web site search results, the Chinese people will still have access to massive amounts of information as a result of the deal, and neither the government nor Google will be able to control it all. Additionally, there are ways to get around that censorship for the more tech-savvy citizens, and for those who aren’t—well, they’ll be acutely aware of the suppression when a disclaimer appears with their search results informing them that some of the findings have been omitted in accordance with government regulations.

 

As for the EU’s proposed regulations, I agree with the detractors on this. Aside from the repercussions related to limiting free expression, the legislation would wind up being ineffectual because there are so many ways to circumvent it.

 

I’m curious about your opinions on these issues: Do you think Google is making all the right moves? Sound off at brians@certmag.com or contribute to the discussion thread “Google Versus Governments” at www.certmag.com/forums.

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