Google’s Gatekeepers

In 2006, Thailand announced it was blocking access to YouTube for anyone with a Thai I.P address, and then identified 20 offensive videos for Google to remove as a condition of unblocking the site.’If your whole game is to increase market share,’ says Lawrence Lessig, speaking of Google, ‘it’s hard to . . . gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or in ways that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.’In March of last year, Nicole Wong, the deputy general counsel of Google, was notified that there had been a precipitous drop in activity on YouTube in Turkey, and that the press was reporting that the Turkish government was blocking access to YouTube for virtually all Turkish Internet users. Apparently unaware that Google owns YouTube, Turkish officials didn’t tell Google about the situation: a Turkish judge had ordered the nation’s telecom providers to block access to the site in response to videos that insulted the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which is a crime under Turkish law. Wong scrambled to figure out which videos provoked the court order and made the first in a series of tense telephone calls to Google’s counsel in London and Turkey, as angry protesters gathered in Istanbul. Eventually, Wong and several colleagues concluded that the video that sparked the controversy was a parody news broadcast that declared, “Today’s news: Kamal Ataturk was gay!” The clip was posted by Greek football fans looking to taunt their Turkish rivals.Wong and her colleagues asked the Turkish authorities to reconsider their decision, pointing out that the original offending video had already been voluntarily removed by YouTube users. But after the video was taken down, Turkish prosecutors objected to dozens of other YouTube videos that they claimed insulted either Ataturk or “Turkishness.” These clips ranged from Kurdish-militia recruitment videos and Kurdish morality plays to additional videos speculating about the sexual orientation of Ataturk, including one superimposing his image on characters from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” “I remember one night, I was looking at 67 different Turkish videos at home,” Wong told me recently.After having many of the videos translated into English, Wong and her colleagues set out to determine which ones were, in fact, illegal in Turkey; which violated YouTube’s terms of service prohibiting hate speech but allowing political speech; and which constituted expression that Google and YouTube would try to protect. There was a vigorous internal debate among Wong and her colleagues at the top of Google’s legal pyramid. Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s director of global public policy, took an aggressive civil-libertarian position, arguing that the company should protect as much speech as possible. Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, took a more pragmatic approach, expressing concern for the safety of the dozen or so employees at Google’s Turkish office. The responsibility for balancing these and other competing concerns about the controversial content fell to Wong, whose colleagues jokingly call her “the Decider,” after George W. Bush’s folksy self-description.Wong decided that Google, by using a technique called I.P. blocking, would prevent access to videos that clearly violated Turkish law, but only in Turkey. For a time, her solution seemed to satisfy the Turkish judges, who restored YouTube access. But last June, as part of a campaign against threats to symbols of Turkish secularism, a Turkish prosecutor made a sweeping demand: that Google block access to the offending videos throughout the world, to protect the rights and sensitivities of Turks living outside the country. Google refused, arguing that one nation’s government shouldn’t be able to set the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. Unmoved, the Turkish government today continues to block access to YouTube in Turkey.The ongoing dispute between Google and Turkey reminds us that, throughout history, the development of new media technologies has always altered the way we think about threats to free speech. At the beginning of the 20th century, civil libertarians in America worried most about the danger of the government silencing political speech: think of Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate for President, who was imprisoned in 1919 for publicly protesting American involvement during World War I. But by the late 1960s, after the Supreme Court started to protect unpopular speakers more consistently, some critics worried that free speech in America was threatened less by government suppression than by editorial decisions made by the handful of private mass-media corporations like NBC and CBS that disproportionately controlled public discourse. One legal scholar, Jerome Barron, even argued at the time that the courts should give unorthodox speakers a mandatory right of access to media outlets controlled by giant corporations.
http://nytimes.com/2008/11/30/magazine/30google-t.html
http://iht.com/articles/2008/11/30/technology/google01.php

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