Censorship and Internet Freedom with Bob Boorstin

Robert Boorstin, Senior Vice President at Albright Stonebridge Group and a former Director of Public Policy at Google, addresses the 2nd Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.


Full remarks


Chair, Bart Woord: And I mean, the search engine, I remember when I was in high school and suddenly one of the young kids who was always working the IT section, who was like 14 years old, suddenly found this search engine called Google. And we were all like, what the heck? Let’s just go, you know, we are using Yahoo and stuff like that. Nowadays, ‘Googling’ has become a verb. It’s everywhere! And that’s why I think it’s extremely great to have somebody from Google here to give the side of the story of a company that’s also, of course, often under some criticism, when it comes to the actual[ly] allowing freedom to flourish independently of state regulations.

I think, Robert, you have probably enough to say yourself and I’m sure that also people in the crowd will be having some questions that we can deal with afterwards. So, the floor is yours.

Robert Boorstin: When I was in high school, we didn’t have computers. I just wanted to be very clear about that. Let me first say thank you to the organizers, and particularly to Arielle and her crew, who’ve put this together, they’ve been extremely efficient. We are not an easy bunch of people, either the speakers or human rights activists in general, having belonged to both groups now. 

The job that I do is called Director of Public Policy for Google out in Washington, DC. I specialize in issues of free expression. It’s a fairly new job at Google and it’s also one of the most interesting jobs at the company, and we can get into why that is. In a past life, for my sins, I think, I was a speechwriter for someone who tended to go on at great length, and so I will try to be brief today, and I ask the interpreters to wave if I’m going too quickly and for the audience to wave if I’m saying too much and you’re getting bored.

A couple of caveats before I get into the topic of my remarks here.  The first is that I’m not a human rights activist. I am honored to be in the company of so many people here who have been threatened for their beliefs, who have suffered for their beliefs, who’ve been in prison for their beliefs and worse. While I did do a few hours in public security bureau offices in rural China many years ago, the closest I get to human rights violations these days is that I’m accused of them fairly regularly by my children. I’m an American, that’s something you may have noticed as well, and Americans generally think that we know more than everyone else. That’s not really a good thing because number one, we don’t, and number two, it tends to make people stop listening to what we’re saying. So I would ask you to raise your hand if you think I’m spouting propaganda, or I’m doing something else that disturbs you either as a European, an Asian, an African, or wherever you hail from. I also work for Google as you know, and that means that sometimes I can lapse into sounding like a salesman for our products. They are pretty cool, actually. And, I work with a bunch of geniuses, and it’s kind of fun, so please, just give me a little leeway on that one. On a more prosaic level, I am not a technology expert, I want to be very clear about that. Please do not ask me complicated questions when we get to the questions, I will not be able to answer them. One other thing I’m not going to do is say a lot about China and I’m not going to make a lot of predictions about what’s going to happen. The reason for that is fairly simple, and I think the best way to explain it is with a great anecdote about the opening of US-Chinese relations in the early seventies. When Henry Kissinger used to go to Beijing and have talks with Zhou Enlai, who was then the Premier of China. Over dinner one night they got into a discussion about the impact of various revolutions: the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Chinese Revolution. Kissinger, as was his usual pattern, started going off on a grand historical theory. After he had spoken for several minutes, he looked at Zhou Enlai and he said, “and what is your opinion of the French revolution?” Zhou Enlai looked back at him and said, “it is too early to tell.” This is a lesson that I think we should all have when we’re talking about the internet. It’s a very important thing, you will hear a lot of people predicting exactly what is going to happen and when it’s going to do so, and I would warn you against listening to such people. 

So what am I gonna talk about today then? I’ve told you what I’m not going to talk about. I’m going to talk about the promise of internet freedom, the perils of internet freedom and what we might do in order to make sure that the promise overcomes the perils. I’m not going to illustrate this with a lot of examples today for a couple of reasons.  One, they take a long time, and two, there are people in this room who know these examples firsthand, know them a lot better than I do, so I would wait for questions for you to tell me about them and so we can discuss them. 

Let’s start, however, with some context, because a few things seem as certain as you can get in this area. First, we all know that the internet is growing phenomenally. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, but just throw out a few numbers for you to consider. About two thirds of the world’s population right now has access to mobile phone technology. This is the fastest spread of any technology in human history. And, this number, about two thirds, actually underestimates the number of people who are affected because one phone can be used by an entire village. More than 80% of Google search queries on mobile come from outside the United States. It’s a very important statistic for us to realize as a company. Here’s another statistic: every minute, 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Let me repeat that, every minute 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Now, if you watch a lot of YouTube, those who spend a lot of time on it, can rightly question the sanity of the global population at times. Some of the things that you’ll see are, to say the least, rather unusual. But you cannot question people’s commitment to the actual media itself. Another thing that I would note in context is that internet censorship is getting worse and more sophisticated. More than 40 countries to date have censored at one time or another, and Google and YouTube have been cut off or cut back in 25 countries. I would also note, however, that this is not only about repressive regimes, the most miserable regimes, the ones we hear the most about.

One thing history teaches us is that we always have to watch our backs; we always have to be looking for what we’re not seeing at that moment. And while focusing on these ugly regimes is popular, it can blind us to other developments. Now I’m not someone who will compare the government in Burma or in Vietnam to Western democracies, but I do wanna speak about one example that happened very recently, where Western democracy was involved in what could only be called internet censorship. Last week, a judge in Italy – or two weeks ago maybe, recently – a judge in Italy sentenced three Google officials to six months suspended sentences for violating Italian privacy laws. The story goes back to 2006, when an Italian teenager uploaded onto what was then called Google video, a video that was really quite horrendous. It showed teenagers abusing, both physically and verbally, a youth with autism. Now it took about two months for the Italian authorities to tell Google that they had found this and to ask us to take it down; it took us about two and a half hours to take it down. Nonetheless, the Italian authorities prosecuted our officials, not only on grounds of privacy violations, but also on grounds of defamation. The grounds of defamation were dropped. The privacy charges, we were found guilty; our officials were found guilty on the privacy charges. Now nobody for a minute would defend the content of that video. It’s precisely the kind of thing that makes people want to be in favor of censorship of different kinds. But I would note the danger that this kind of incident poses, not just to Google officials, but to everyone in this room and people around the world. Because, if from now, on you are responsible for anything that appears on your website, you’re criminally responsible for anything that appears on your website, that’s certainly going to have a chilling effect on what people are willing to put up. Another thing it’s going to do is it’s going to encourage repressive regimes to say, well, look at those Western democracies and what they do. 

Now, let me turn to the Internet’s promise. First, the internet is global. It’s a medium that pays no attention to borders and it militates against control. And, of particular interest to the people gathered in this room, it means that the diaspora from various countries can have an effect that’s way out of proportion to its numbers. A second area of promise that the internet has is that it remains an open system, not a closed system. If you’ve got a connection, you’re likely to be able to access information and to say what you want. It may take a lot of work in some societies, but you can usually get there. Third, the internet is cheap. It’s important to note that it’s a relatively cheap form of advertising, not only if you wanna sell shoes, of course, but also if you want to gather people to a cause. Never before has it been cheaper to come up with a political movement and to bring your followers along. Fourth, the internet is a two-way street. In many places, the monopoly on information, once confined to people who owned printing presses or television stations, has been broken, and everyone who wants to participate gets to participate. And the internet certainly has the potential to be a force for small D democracy, for citizen participation and for transparency when it comes to government. Fifth, and gaining more truth every day, the internet is user driven. Now in its highest form, something, you know well in this room, this means that you’ve got a new power to bear witness to atrocity or to human rights violations, or expose a corrupt regime is different. Let me give you two examples. 

[1] Several years ago in Thailand, the Thai government cut off YouTube. They cut it off because there were videos that appeared that mocked the king and under what’s called the Lèse-majesté (and excuse my French pronunciation in this crowd, I really do apologize) law in Thailand, you’re not allowed to make fun of the king in any way. These were truly rude by Asian standards. We got in touch with the Thai government and they were very angry about this, not recognizing at first that in fact we did not post the videos. They thought that people at Google had put the videos up rather than people outside the country. So we’re dealing with a level of misunderstanding that’s very high to begin with. Eventually, after some many months of chatting, we agreed to remove those videos from YouTube in Thailand in order for the rest of YouTube to be able to be shown in Thailand. Now you can argue that we did not follow to the extreme, free speech, and that in fact we cut off some things that people should be able to see. I would argue that we maximized free expression and kept YouTube open, rather than showing the Thai people nothing. 

[2] We had a different experience, of course, in China. In 2006, when we opened up our google.cn domain. A domain is a different kind of Google that we use in a different country. In Germany, for example, it’s google.de or google.com in the US. We opened that up because google.com was strangled by the Chinese regime. You were lucky if you could get to it 10 or 15% of the time. But when we did so, and it took a year for the company to argue it through, we did not offer certain services. We did not offer, and we still do not offer, Gmail and blogger services in China. There was a very simple reason for that. If we had offered those, we would’ve had to store the information on servers on Chinese soil. If we had done that, we would’ve put ourselves in a terrible position because the Chinese would’ve been able to come to us and demand personally identifiable information of different users. So by not putting that information on servers in China, we avoided the problem that other companies have faced. At the same time, and you can argue with this either way, and I can argue it both ways, we decided to start google.cn, a censored search engine. We did that because in the final analysis, we believed that engaging with the Chinese people and offering them an alternative to the Chinese owned search engine Baidu made a lot of sense. And if and when we pull out of China and turn off google.cn, I’m afraid that we will be taking away from the Chinese populace, the internet users in China, a tool that they have come to value because it’s not Baidu, and we don’t censor as much as Baidu does. So these are really complicated questions. I know that sounds like just the typical thing a person who works for a corporation would say, but I’m afraid that it’s true.

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