Google, human rights and censorship

Google is a gateway to the internet, to a wealth of information that many take for granted (Google handles about 34,000 searches every second – that’s about 2 million every minute).

As our desire for, and access to, information has grown, few have questioned what happens when this information is restricted or controlled. This article asks, what happens when the ‘Google gateway’ to information is shut?

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”

In other words, it is a human right to be able to impart and receive information through any media – this includes Google and the video hosting company YouTube (owned by Google).

Google recently found itself in the difficult situation of hosting a video which has provoked wide-spread rioting across the Arab world. It has since decided to block this video in a number of countries, including Egypt and Libya.

They took this action despite Google officially stating thatThis video — which is widely available on the Web — is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube…However, given the very difficult situation in Libya and Egypt we have temporarily restricted access in both countries.”

So Google made this decision to block the video due to the ‘difficult situation in Libya and Egypt’.

By ‘difficult situation’ one can only assume they mean vested American interests being ruffled. I say this as I cannot see any rationale to blocking the video in these countries and not others. Did they not think it might pose a security threat in Palestine for example?

Of course freedom of speech comes with responsibilities and limitations and some would argue that this is Google living up to those responsibilities.  Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals”

On the one hand Google has an obligation to not unduly ‘interfere’ and restrict the imparting or receiving of information. On the other hand it has an obligation to judge when something is in the ‘interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety’. In a globalised internet generation, it is an ethical tightrope that they are trying to walk.

Kevin Bankston, director of the free expression project at the Centre for Democracy and Technology expanded saying, “Google is walking a precarious line…[blocking the video] sends the message that if you violently object to speech you disagree with, you can get it censored… [however] It seems they’re trying to balance the concern about censorship with the threat of actual violence in Egypt and Libya”.

From this incident there remain at least two important questions. Firstly, have Google been open, transparent and consistent about why and where they choose to block content? I think not.

Secondly, what mechanisms are in place to provide scrutiny and oversight to these global powerhouses that have become the brokers of freedom of expression in an internet age?

Can a company accurately decide what the impact of words, images or film produced in one part of the world, have in another? Is it their responsibility to act as world police to protect people through censorship of potentially offensive material?

There are no easy answers to these questions that potentially pitch human rights up against ‘common sense’ pragmatic restrictions that might save lives.

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Filed under Human rights, Media, Middle East, Politics

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