A Hard Place and a Rock: Challenges for Industry

This post is a liveblog of a panel at Google’s Liberty at 2010 conference.

Rebecca MacKinnon, currently of the New America Foundation, is leading the next discussion, entitled “A rock and a hard place: challenges for industry.”  The panel will focus on the issues of intermediaries, and will feature David Drummond of Google (US) and Lord Richard Allan of Facebook (UK).

MacKinnon begins the final panel of the day by asking how can cyberspace fulfill its potential.  She suggests that the answer to the question posed earlier today, “is the potential of the Internet as a force for positive change?” is “we don’t know yet.”

She mentions my paper, published yesterday, entitled “Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere” to introduce a discussion on how companies (intermediaries) are framing discussion and controlling speech.

She mentions that Google continues to come under fire, particularly by privacy groups, regarding the company’s collection of data.

Just as in we regard governments as “trying to do the right thing,” Rebecca points out that we often trust companies in the same manner.  She asks, a year after  Google’s famous decision to stop filtering in China, if Google has an obligation to do more.

“We do have an obligation,” says David Drummond, Senior Vice President of Google, “and we’re trying to do more.”  Drummond states that free expression is at the forefront of Google’s decisions.  “We’ve always been criticized by folks for various things, and we do listen, and we change our policies.”  He states that one thing Google has done to make themselves more accountable is release their transparency tool.  “Don’t just trust us, let us put that information out there.”

MacKinnon raises the fact that Google was a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multi-stakeholder organization that brings together companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics in order to “protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.”

She then moves to Facebook’s Lord Richard Allan and asks what Facebook is doing to build trust in its users.  She asks, “Why isn’t Facebook joining the GNI?” and mentions that she has been a strong critic of Facebook over the course of the past year.

Allan says: “Over the issues of privacy and freedom of expression, we’ve taken certain positions, but there are internal debates as well.”  One question, he mentions, is how much Facebook should share while working out the kinks.  Facebook is recasting its TOS/rights and responsibilities soon.  Allan wonders how much they should share during that process.

Allan points to the GNI to say that he spoke with Executive Director Susan Morgan and that Facebook will seriously consider joining in the future and report back soon.

MacKinnon turns again to Drummond to refer back to an earlier comment regarding the fact that Google has a global constituency.  “Google users live in countries where their leaders may not have citizens’ best interests at heart.  Could companies like yours play a role in enabling people to have a voice or helping them to participate in this enterprise that we’re embarking on — how do we keep the Internet open, free, and serving the interests of all of its users?”

Drummond responds by saying that Google is trying to make its tools more useful, accessible, and to adhere to a global definition of free expression.  He also states that it’s the responsibility of governments to change, or for governments to pressure other governments.

MacKinnon asks if it would be possible to open up a multi-stakeholder initiative within Facebook’s user base to get global users involved.  Allan responds by saying that Facebook has asked for user input, but that their experience has been that the kind of issues that engage large swaths of users relate to visual issues (e.g., Facebook groups called “I hate the new design of Facebook”).  “We value the voices of the community that engage within the details of the TOS,” he states.

Allan adds that Facebook’s translation project (the site is available in 70+ languages) has really changed things for users globally in terms of engagement.  He also talks about access, and how users can utilize Facebook to gain more information.

MacKinnon then jumps back to Drummond, asking about Google’s relationships with governments.  She gives the example of Google and China, but also an example of a US organization that was beating up on China for censoring search results, but simultaneously targeting YouTube for not taking down copyrighted videos.  MacKinnon’s point, of multiple and possibly contradicting challenges, is an important one: A government (e.g., that of the United States) might have serious implications for an online company.  “How do you get lawmakers to think more seriously about consequences of laws on companies’ servers?”

Drummond responds by saying that one thing Google is hoping for is to get people (lawmakers) thinking about these issues at a broader level. Google’s default is free speech, but they recognize that there are different conceptions of that.  Because it’s the job of governments to regulate issues in their countries, Google needs to navigate those laws while arguing simultaneously for common standards.

“Google knows from your IP address what country you’re in, so when you’re here, you’ll see, which makes sense from a user perspective.”  Drummond points out that it also makes sense from a government perspective, as they have the ability to adapt particular country pages to certain local environments while at the same time leaving other Google sites open.

“This preserves the ability/right of the user to go see that content,” states Drummond.  “The content is still available on”

MacKinnon to Allan: “As David alluded to, this has been a tough year for Facebook, with governments such as Pakistan’s demanding a specific page be taken down.”

Allan replies, “We enable conversations between transnational groups.” Thus, if Facebook were to block a page, it could be considered the lesser of two evils, so to speak, as people in a country would still be able to access the rest of the site.  Allan points out that Facebook is only inclined to remove content that is actually illegal in a country (such as insulting Ataturk in Turkey).

Allan also notes that in Germany, they have a specific legal basis under which they must make certain content unavailable.

Marc Rotenberg of EPIC, from the audience, gives his view: That a generous view of liberty able to accommodate multiple rights is a better one.  Internet freedom: opposition to filtering, support for privacy, etc…a broader definition.  “We see no conflict in supporting those efforts.”

Rotenberg also states that privacy should perhaps be a complement to freedom of expression.  “When we say privacy,” he explains, “we don’t mean a defense for government secrecy.  There are areas of the Internet in which free speech and privacy–anonymity–go hand in hand.”

Rotenberg also jokes that he’s often asked, “What is a privacy advocate doing on Facebook?”  He notes (which I also do in my paper) that Facebook is like a telephone or e-mail; it’s become vital to our lives.  We need to understand that these tools may be flawed, he says, but we need to work to improve them.

Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China takes the mic for comment.  She says that, in her organization’s interaction with companies, it is often far more frustrating than the open conversations occurring at this conference.   “What a rock and a hard place usually means is ‘we have to preserve our own market or express free expression and privacy’,” she says of companies, “Or it’s about adhering to local laws.”

Hom then moves on to approaches as relevant to China and beyond: “First, there’s not one solution and no silver bullet but the Chinese government does have a comprehensive, fully detailed plan for Internet management” (she has copies outside).  She states that the document was not issued with a translation.  Her suggestions:

  • “We need to think about cross-sector convergence – things that a sector thinks doesn’t apply to them will apply to them.”  Raising the example of Cisco a few years back stating that there was no issue with their business in China (and human rights), as it turns out, Cisco supplies filtering tools.  Intermediary liability in China is reflected in law as of October 1, says Hom, and the law will say that intermediaries are liable and have a proactive obligation to report, take down, and cooperate with authorities.
  • We need to shift our mindset, says Hom.  “If this were about trade or security, it would be better considered.”  Looking at counter-terrorism, she says, best practices are being honed.
  • Hom stresses the importance of working with civil society.

Susan Morgan of GNI takes the stand to say that she’s happy to hear the importance of multi-stakeholder initiatives as being stressed, and that she’s happy to hear Facebook might consider joining the GNI.  She then explains more about the GNI’s principles.

[I didn’t liveblog the next piece because I stood up to ask my own two questions:

  • With Facebook offerend in 70+ languages, why is the TOS in only 5?
  • Why did Facebook treat the “Draw Mohammaed Day” group with so much importance whilst ignoring the myriad other groups complaining about deletion

Allan responded.]

A user from India asks a question about the removal of the Pink Chaddi campaign‘s group, which was removed and still hasn’t been restored.  Facebook’s Allan responds by saying he knows that was awhile ago but hopes that Facebook’s processes have since changed, and improved.

“User operations guidelines requires knowledge of local contexts when dealing with other languages,” says Allan, apparently addressing me.

Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy and Technology uses the mall analogy, and points out that Facebook lacks a coherent and easy to understand appeals process.  She notes that Facebook often claims to be larger than a country, but doesn’t have the same regulations in place to deal with their size.

The session concludes with Facebook’s Allan noting that Facebook is listening.  MacKinnon urges the audience to get involved and help companies work in the public interest.

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