Sunday, November 30, 2008

Monitoring Google's self-regulation

The converse side of Google providing targeting information for foreign terrorists (or militaries) is the question of Google censoring information that’s politically objectionable to host governments, rather than have its search (or YouTube) banned nationwide.

Today law professor Jeffrey Rosen has a long (5200 word) article in the New York Times Magazine entitled “Google’s Gatekeepers.” (Yes, I know, “long” is redundant in this context). Both Frank Pasquale and Mike Madison commented on the article in the Madisonian blog, which is where I saw it. 

Rosen highlighs government objections from China, Turkey, Thailand, France, Indian, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The crux of the issues is summed up in these two paragraphs from Rosen’s article:

Voluntary self-regulation means that, for the foreseeable future, [Google associate counsel] Wong and her colleagues will continue to exercise extraordinary power over global speech online. Which raises a perennial but increasingly urgent question: Can we trust a corporation to be good — even a corporation 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 the king,” Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor and a former scholar in residence at Google, told me recently. “One reason they’re good at the moment is they live and die on trust, and as soon as you lose trust in Google, it’s over for them.” Google’s claim on our trust is a fragile thing. After all, it’s hard to be a company whose mission is to give people all the information they want and to insist at the same time on deciding what information they get.
This reminds me of what Prof. Randy Stross said during his Sept 30 talk at SJSU about his book Planet Google. From the transcript:
The only time I am going to be most worried about what Google is doing is when they offer bland reassurances. [I’m not worried] when they agonize publicly — here are the issues for us, here [is why we] are agonizing — which is what they did when they confronted the question about what to do with the Chinese government’s demand that they censor results for certain search terms.

As long as they do that, I think they can hold to “don’t be evil” but if they revert to standard corporate speak with the rote reassurances, this is a company that as I fear will know more about us than any entity — private or public — in the world. I don’t want to hear reassurances; I want to see them worry about my worries.
One thing I found comforting in the NYT article is that search engine censorship is being reported. Today, it’s to, a website run by the EFF and various law schools. Under the proposed Global Online Freedom Act, it would also be to the US government. (Rosen makes it clear that Google et al want to change some of the provisions).

It’s wrong to have the EFF or DOJ (or other USG) tell Google what they can and cannot censor to keep Google legal in China or Turkey or Thailand or France. But government (or voluntary agreement) can absolutely play a role in assuring full disclosure, so that the public can see how Google (or Microsoft or Yahoo) are balancing the trade-offs that rightly worry Prof. Rosen and Prof. Stross.

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