“Internet Freedom”? Google Making (and Then Unmaking) Itself as Censor in Chief of the Internet: And What This Tells Us About Global Internet Governance

Posted on February 28, 2015

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Earlier this week Google, quite out of the blue introduced a quite stringent measure for “censoring” sexual content on its blog platform, Blogger. This precipitated a very strong set of reactions from the Internet community and three days later the measure was revoked. Below are two emails, both sent to several lists with a strong interest in issues of overall Global Governance where, at least the first one evoked a quite strong reaction from various quarters, self-identifying as “civil society” as well as taking what appears to be a strong pro-corporate and pro-libertarian set of positions. The second email was sent immediately after the Google measure was revoked and has as yet received no reactions. The two posts have been slightly modified for clarity in the transposition to this media.

So Google (in its just introduced censorship regulation) will not only decide what is “pornographic” but it will also decide what might have “substantial public benefit, for example in artistic, educational, documentary, or scientific contexts”…

And in this effort they will be accountable to who exactly? What/whose standards will they be using (San Francisco standards/Saudi Arabia standards/other)? What will be the review and appeal processes? How will these review and appeal processes themselves be held accountable or subject to review and appeal?

And how do they reconcile this with their very loud and very well-funded “Internet Freedom” campaign? “Internet Freedom” for those good folks they choose to have Internet Freedom and censorship for the rest…? What is to stop Google from censoring other types of expression (anti-Google political stances or those they consider that might lead some restrictions on Google’s business model for example… or imposing similar standards in other of their “free” offerings—Gmail, Search, GoogleDrive etc.

Note, I’m not arguing that what they are doing doesn’t need to be done but simply pointing out the hypocrisy (or simple mindedness) of their (and others) “Internet Freedom” campaign. The extreme danger of the privatization of law in the Internet sphere and the very real and dangerous impacts of these campaigns and the de-legitimation of the role of governments in having a regulatory oversight role in online activities and corporations.

I have no doubt that Google was forced reluctantly into the role of censor and would very much have preferred that someone else have that responsibility (and the cost of exercising that responsibility… But their having heavily contributed to breaking any immediate possibility for global governance frameworks in these areas through their Internet Freedom campaigns, they get to own it and all the costs and headaches that will be involved.

I’m also very much aware of the role of states in attempting to censor and control information on the Internet. But the conclusion that I draw from this is that we need globalized forms of “governance” in these areas to match the national governance structures. I’m fully aware of democratic deficits in so many countries—those formally democratic and those that aren’t even bothering but at least in structures which are formally democratic there is some possibility of broad-based accountability—with private corporations and private law such as that from Google, there is none except the (highly uncertain) “discipline of the marketplace”. The appropriate response to attacks or limitations on democracy is not less democracy but rather more.

These are real and important dilemmas and one’s which deserve real and important efforts at exploration and resolution—going beyond the memes and slogans of unthinking “Internet Freedom”, sanctification of the “it is whatever I say it is” multi-stakeholder formulations, and knee jerk juvenile anti-governmentalist libertarianism but rather something which come to grips with the reality of a world being transformed both for better and for worse by the Internet and the collective and global risks and responsibilities for developing effective measures for accountability and governance in the interests of the many, of the public interest and in support of a global public good.

Email 3 days later

So Google has very quickly, one could even say, almost at the speed of light announced a complete reversal of what was fairly clearly a not very well thought through decision to become a formal censor of the materials appearing on its blog platform. There was in the Internet space a great deal of comment mostly focusing on the arbitrariness, lack of consultation, lack of clear procedures and so on of the decision—not a lot arguing directly against censorship as such, but rather focusing on what Google’s actions meant and what it was telling us about “governance” in Google’s corner of the Internet.

Clearly Google was listening (watching) and was probably quite flummoxed by what was transpiring. This was “their space” after all, they owned it and (as various folks mostly of the libertarian persuasion pointed out) they’ll censor if they want to…

But it doesn’t appear that it is quite “their space” or at least a large number of folks don’t consider it to be a space for which Google has (or should have) sole and arbitrary responsibility/control. Quite evidently many many folks consider themselves to have some degree of “citizenship” in online (cyber) space (or spaces such as Blogger if not Blogger itself) and they are not hesitant in expressing their opinions on how “their” (cyber)space should be governed and what rules should apply.

Notably, irrespective of the commercial interests that might be involved – it’s hard to see that the revenue lost (or gained) by Google’s original censorship intervention or its repeal are of any material significance to Google or that financial issues had much bearing on either decision.

Rather the decision(s) were almost certainly based on reputational, political and legal considerations—the initial decision likely being driven by concerns of being associated either reputationally or possibly legally with some quite dodgy blog-based content. While the reversal was quite likely based on larger questions of Google’s reputation/policy standing; notably with those concerned with the freedom of expression (and “Internet Freedom”) online issues that Google’s actions impacted and rather than those concerned with online pornography (pro or con).

What Google probably came to realize fairly quickly, based on the feedback they received, was that they were potentially, at least, damaging their reputation among and association with the former group of Internet Freedom activists. This in turn could have very significant and quite unpredictable consequences down the line for its overall policy influence and ultimately the possibility of its finding the kind of policy allies that they will want as they move forward in the uncharted Internet regulatory/governance space (think about the recent FCC Net Neutrality decision process).

This of course, is all very interesting but I think there are other even more interesting issues that can be drawn out from the debacle. Google can (and certainly will) be praised for its quick responsiveness to Internet based concerns. This will be seen (and correctly) as a victory for the Internet (and free speech) community. But I think what is most evident about this whole process is the risks and benefits of the kind of private law which Google is practicing and which many of the advocates of Internet Freedom/Hands off the Internet see as being a desirable future for Internet (and Global) Governance.

If the initial decision by Google was arbitrary and non-transparent the second decision was equally arbitrary and non-transparent. Who/what precipitated the first decision and who/what precipitated the second—we will probably never know. The speed of the second decision suggests that the first decision may have been taken at a fairly low and “bureaucratic” level, while the second was taken at a rather more senior (even the most senior) and strategic management level. It might also be noted that the second decision was the kind of decision that a company “listening to its customers” would likely make as it is hard to imagine what type of “insider” or elite based influence might have been brought to bear on Google’s management in this case.

But what is most interesting I think is the capacity of a huge corporation to turn on a dime and bring in a quite significant policy decision one day and, with some, but not numerically very significant opposition, reverse this decision, essentially overnight. This is policy making (or at least unmaking) in real time.

Now imagine this in the context of broader areas of Internet (or Global) governance. The complete lack of transparency at both ends—no idea who is involved in the decisions, what factors they are taking into consideration, who they are listening to (and not listening to), what internal processes of decision making are taking place. Further, how is Google perceiving it’s “accountability”—to the Internet Community (however defined)?, to the bottom line?, solely to its shareholders?, to its Washington policy interlocutors?, to its global policy interlocutors?, and what weight do they assign to each of these. Again impossible to know but necessary to know if anyone wants a regularized and predictable policy regime either for the privatized spaces in the Internet or the broader spheres of Internet Governance i.e. was the first decision a measured decision and the second a caprice, or is it the reverse and dare we give over control of our collective memory/indexing of all human knowledge to such a set of decision processes.

In the absence of some sort of formalized processes of accountability, transparency, representative (democratic) decision making it’s extremely hard to see that decision making in situations of monopoly or near monopoly as is the case in so many areas of Internet activity could arguably be left to the private sector or even to processes where there are unregulated processes of private sector influence.

There is in the Internet and particularly Internet Governance space the notion being circulated that somehow private corporations and particularly the major Internet corporations should have significant stake in the policy decisions which are beginning to pop up with increasing regularity (of which issues of censorship certainly are one). This particular episode is to my mind quite revealing of the limitations of that type of involvement given the way in which the policy decisions were made/unmade; imposed/suppressed; all without a publicly visible process and all in a matter of hours with no visible human intervention (or presence) at all.

What would you rather have protecting “Internet Freedom”, the action/inaction of a middle level manager at a company like Google or a formally constituted, state sanctioned body of laws and regulations?