The fight for free expression online

Google’s D-J Collins lays out the case for defending freedom onlin

The internet is democracy and freedom in action. It was set up to enable everyone to share views and access information regardless of who they were or where they lived. Before the advent of the internet, every form of communication was run by the rich or influential. The internet has given this power to everyone.

It’s why the fight for free expression online is not just the biggest issue on the internet but, in many ways, the defining issue of our times. Internet freedom is vital because a world that is freer is more open, more peaceful and more prosperous. It will be hugely influential in the kinds of societies we live in. That’s why this battle should concern all of us.
The good news is that 1.6 billion people are already online, learning and sharing information. Some of this is profound, some is not. What is important is that people are free to choose for themselves.
But freedom is not winning everywhere. Repressive governments are creating and enforcing codes and practices that restrict free expression both online and offline. According to Reporters Without Borders, the number of states that censor the internet has grown from 4 in 2002 to 60 today.
Our own Google services have been blocked in more than 25 different countries. Maps, for example, are banned in Uzbekistan, YouTube in Turkmenistan, Libya andIran. Some products vanish for a few hours or days, others are banned indefinitely.
Nor are the threats to internet freedom restricted to the usual suspects. An Italian court, for example, convicted three Google employees for violating privacy laws after an individual posted a bullying video on YouTube. This decision violates not only common sense but critical principles of free expression. If sites like Blogger, YouTube and social networks are to be held responsible for vetting every single piece of content uploaded, then the web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of its economic, social, political and technological benefits could disappear.
Across the world as well, we see individuals paying a heavy price for exercising their rights to free expression. There are over 120 bloggers and Internet publishers imprisoned. Natalia Radzina, a Belarusian journalist and editor of the news website Charter 97, was arrested in December and faces 15 years in prison for alleged public disorder disturbances. A Thai journalist and editor of an alternative news site was arrested in September after participating in a Google conference on free expression in Budapest. She now faces 82 years in prison.
Internet freedom is, of course, an issue which goes right to heart of our business and mission at Google. I am proud of the stand we are taking.
We have helped individuals make their views known when curbs are imposed. During the recent democratic revolution in Egypt, the government shut down the internet by restricting service providers. A small team of Googlers, working with Twitter and SayNow, created a new service called speak2tweet. It enabled anyone in Egypt with a phone to leave voice messages which were then posted onto Twitter ensuring vital information was shared with the wider world.
We are also shining a light on efforts to restrict internet freedom. We have created an interactive map showing government requests for information about users or for Google to take down or censor content. Our interactive traffic graphs provide information about traffic to Google services around the world.  By illustrating outages, this tool highlights disruptions in the free flow of information, whether it’s a government blocking information or a cable being cut.
We have also joined with Microsoft, Yahoo, human rights groups and others in the United States to develop a code of conduct for how technology companies operating in repressive regimes should behave to promote freedom of expression and protect the privacy of users. The Global Network Initiative holds companies accountable for their commitments to protect their users and maximises the power of its membership to effect change and prevent backsliding. Interestingly, no European company has signed up to the initiative.
And perhaps our most public move yet was to take the decision to stop censoring results on, our Chinese search engine. And while it put us in a difficult position as a business, the decision to defend freedom online was the right one to take.
We accept as well that there is more to do. But that goes not just for companies like ours but for everyone. The first step is to ensure we all speak up for internet freedom. Europe’s politicians are increasingly taking up the call. But it would be an important step if Poland put the issue on the agenda for its European Union presidency. A resolution defending internet freedom from the European Parliament would also be a move in the right direction.
We all need to be engaged. Ultimately, the future of freedom on the internet is about shaping what kind of internet we want, whether it is open or closed. We have to ask ourselves whether we want the internet to stay, as it is now, as essentially democratic or to be increasingly controlled by the influential. We now have in the internet the first form of mass communication that is not controlled by a powerful elite. It will be up to us whether it remains that way.
D-J Collins is the Director of Policy and Communications for EMEA at Google.