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Google, China, and the Future of Freedom on the Global Internet

Maybe it’s because I was schooled in political science, not computer science. But frankly I’ve been surprised by the extent to which some respected commentators have focused on trashing Google for lacking purity of motive. As if that were some kind of brilliant revelation. Of course Google’s actions are motivated by self-interest.

Self-interest is a complicated thing, and isn’t only financial. I personally know quite a number of Googlers working in various locations around the world, some at fairly high levels. I get the sense that the emotional well-being of Google’s founders, and many others with decision-making power throughout the company, is quite wrapped up in their belief in Google as a force for good in the world. Whether that belief is completely or only partially delusional is an open question. (Ken Auletta’s new book on Google provides some useful insight on that front.) But let’s be honest with ourselves. How many people on the planet do anything for 100% selfless reasons?

If having a free, open and just society depends on purity of motive, God help us all.

If executives at companies like Google conclude that it’s in their self-interest to take a public stand against censorship and unlawful surveillance, and do things that contribute to freedom of information and openness, that is a good thing, whatever their deepest and truest motivations—which probably require years of psychoanalysis for even them to understand, at any rate.

Sure, we can trash Google for not being run by a bunch of Mother Theresas. We can further trash the U.S. government because its support for global Internet freedom involves more pragmatism - and perhaps even a certain amount of hypocrisy and cynicism—than the high-falutin rhetoric suggests. In so doing we will not be factually wrong. But if we’re interested in accomplishing anything beyond clever snark that boosts web traffic and sells books, that topic gets uninteresting pretty quickly. Having noted the obvious, the question I’m more interested in is: What should concerned netizens who want a more free and open global Internet do now?

I’ve got a suggestion: Why don’t we focus on figuring out how to maximize the incentives for a lot more CEO’s and government leaders around the world to support a free and open global Internet—for selfish reasons? Reasons like brand reputation, market share, long-term profit, voter support, political legitimacy, economic competitiveness, and geopolitical influence?

If you look at many of Google’s recent statements, activities, and legal disputes that are un-related to China or even to authoritarian countries for that matter, a picture emerges about how the company perceives its long-term interests. Take for example a long memo to Google employees titled “The meaning of open” posted on the Google Policy Blog on December 21st 2009 by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President for Product Management. He writes:

Closed systems are well-defined and profitable, but only for those who control them. Open systems are chaotic and profitable, but only for those who understand them well and move faster than everyone else. Closed systems grow quickly while open systems evolve more slowly, so placing your bets on open requires the optimism, will, and means to think long term. Fortunately, at Google we have all three of these.

He concludes:

Open will win. It will win on the Internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation. Each of these futures depends on an open Internet.

Google is betting its global business success on an open Internet. If you look at Google’s latest China move through the lens of global Internet policy trends and not just through the lens of Chinese politics, or China’s relationship with the West, it makes a lot more sense. It makes sense from a business standpoint for Google not only to oppose censorship but to work actively against it, and do everything in their power to influence global policies, laws, and community practices that favor openness. In the past year they’ve gotten increasingly vocal about censorship—and not just in authoritarian countries like China. In this post Public Policy Director Bob Boorstin criticizes the Australian government’s efforts to censor the Internet down under. Not far below that, you’ll find a post on the Google Policy Blog from December 14th about an internal anti-censorship workshop at which Ron Diebert of the Open Net Initiative gave a presentation about the spread of Internet censorship all over the world. Also present at the workshop were some of the world’s most accomplished “hacktivists” like Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton, whose mission in life is to help Internet users around the world circumvent censorship and evade surveillance. Now that Google has changed its public stance in China, my friend and Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman is hopeful that Google will get much more actively and directly involved in supporting, developing, and even hosting the tools people need to get around censorship. “A Google-backed anticensorship system,” he writes, “would be massively more powerful (and threatening!) than the systems we know about today.”

In the United States, Google’s policy positions are frequently aligned with free speech activists and the open source/free culture community—as they go head-to-head against traditional telcos and media companies in policy fights over copyright law, Net Neutrality, the evil secretive and scary ACTA trade agreement, and other issues. In Italy, for example, Google executives are facing criminal charges because the Italian government wants to hold Internet companies like Google more directly liable for what users do on their services, which encourages a global trend that would inevitably result in companies having to massively increase the extent to which they track, police and censor users—which in turn not only has serious implications for human rights and free expression but also drastically increases Internet companies’ overhead, making their business model much less sustainable. This isn’t just a problem in Italy. Worried about piracy, cyber-bullying, child porn, and other ills, courts and parliaments in democracies around the world have been moving to increase intermediary liability for Internet companies. Crimes need to be punished, I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but this particular solution throws the baby out with the bathwater. The chances that increased intermediary liability will be conducive to free speech, human rights, or a free and open Internet are low to nill as this excellent paper by the Center for Democracy and Technology explains. Which is why both Google and free speech activists oppose intermediary liability. Are we so naive as to think Google is acting altruistically? No. Intermediary liability hurts their business model. But it’s no less helpful to have a powerful corporate ally on this issue.

On privacy, however, Google’s actions, statements, and policies are not as well aligned with civil liberties and human rights activists. Just ask the Electronic Privacy Information Center which has filed lawsuits and official complaints with government regulators over how Google fails to adequately protect user privacy in cloud computing, Google Books, etc.

Then there was CEO Eric Schmidt’s infamous comment on CNBC late last year: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” What a horrible, frightening thing to hear if you’re a Chinese human rights activist who depends on GMail, Google Groups, and Google Docs—as many of them have been doing. Google’s damage-control people emphasized that Schmidt was talking about the Patriot Act and that he did not mean to express disregard for privacy more generally. But it sure didn’t come off that way, and raised a lot of very legitimate concerns about Google’s attitude to privacy. Going public about the Chinese cyber-attacks and declaring a willingness to leave China if necessary in order to protect GMail users undoubtedly helps reverse the p.r. and public trust problems caused by Schmidt’s remark—whether or not this manner of handling the situation actually makes GMail users more secure given that GMail servers have never been located in China (or was the attack aided by an inside job?).

Still, if Google’s stand against Chinese government-sponsored attacks on GMail’s most vulnerable users leads to measures that boost the security and privacy of Google’s inadequately secured cloud-based services—which ironically may have been exacerbated by U.S. government back-door surveillance requirements under the Patriot Act—that is an excellent result. However if the result ends up being a general underwear bomber-style public freakout that results in the U.S. security establishment getting even broader license to pick over Google’s user data, with even less judicial/congressional oversight and public accountability than is presently the case under FISA and the Patriot Act, then that will be a very bad thing for free speech, democracy, and ultimately a free and open global Internet. I am worried that the latter result is more likely, based on much of the rhetoric coming from American politicians and the tone of media coverage I’ve been seeing.

But the biggest problem with Google is not its intentions or the extent to which specific actions and policies align themselves with civil liberties lawyers, free expression groups and human rights activists. The biggest problem is how Google says they advocate a free and open Internet, positions themselves as global leaders of this cause, then says “trust us, we’re good people, we’re working in your interest.” Then we’re just supposed to trust them. When has that been a good idea in any other human governance situation and why exactly are we supposed to expect that to work for us in this case? Is Google really run by Vulcans and not humans or something?

Privacy activist Katitza Rodriguez put her finger on the problem in a recent e-mail exchange about the implications of Google’s China move (which I quote with her permission): “Google’s decision in China does not answer concerns in other countries about its growing domination of the Internet.”

Jeff Jarvis, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and the New York Times have written in the past few days from different angles about how the Google has been playing a state-like role in this latest drama. Siva—who has a book coming out on Google called “The Googlization of Everything”—writes:

The Internet has enough diverse interests and players that it demands governance. No traditional state is in the position or willing to assume that role. So Google governs the Internet.

One could read this showdown (as I do) as a classic international power conflict between a major traditional state and a new, virtual state: the Googlenet.

Google is taking a risky stand to defend the Internet generally. This is what a weaker, threatened state would do.

Now, if I had to choose between the Chinese Communist Party as my government or Google as my government, I know in a heartbeat which one I’d choose. But that’s like choosing between one king or another—you choose the one with the most benevolent behavior and cross your fingers. I would prefer something else completely.

Societies with the highest levels of freedom, openness, and justice aren’t that way because their leaders as individuals are the most morally superior specimens out there - or because their citizens were born with higher proportions of goodness and lower proportions of evilness than people in other societies. They got that way thanks to institutions, mechanisms, and community standards designed to incentivize behavior that results in greater freedom, openness, and justice—however selfish powerful people’s motives might be. This is why the most free, open and just societies are parliamentary democracies—not benevolent dictatorships, or theocracies, or dictatorships of the proletariat, or even patriarchal-bureaucratic autocracies run by wise elites schooled in the moral wisdom of ancient sages. Democracy assumes that power—even when held by the smartest and most well-intentioned people—always corrupts. Therefore power must never be absolute. It must always be constrained by strong public supervision and accountability mechanisms.

Along with a lot of other Internet and telecommunications companies, plus everybody who creates, hosts, or enables web content and applications, Google’s wide range of popular services have built a new virtual place we’ve come to know as “cyberspace,” into which global human activity now extends. Google administers or controls increasingly large parts of this space where a growing percentage of global Internet users’ activities happen. Google’s power over our freedom in cyberspace is government-like—with real implications for our physical freedom in “meatspace,” as the China situation clearly illustrates.

Thus Google has social responsibilities of a government-like nature toward its “users,” who might be better described as “inhabitants” or “citizens” of the part of cyberspace that Google controls. These responsibilities are different and more complex than the conventional social responsibilities of companies toward customers who buy their products and services. Google (and for that matter all Internet and telecommunications companies who create, enable, and control different parts of cyberspace) needs to be held to different standards of accountability, oversight, and consent-of-the-governed than the people from whom we buy tennis shoes or canned soup. The responsibility of a soup company not to poison me, and the shoe company’s responsibility not to sell me a shoddy product that makes me twist my ankle, can be dealt with largely through government regulation and national law. Regulation by national governments alone cannot address Google’s trans-national moral and social obligations—as creator and protector of a place where I spend hours every day working, playing, politicking, and conducting the most intimate details of my life—to respect and protect my human rights. That’s because Google competes directly with national governments for my loyalty and trust. What’s more, Google recognizes that my trust and loyalty—and thus its business—depend in part on its willingness to protect me from efforts by national governments to violate my human rights. (And there is no government that won’t make such efforts if presented with the opportunity to get away with it.)

In any place where governance and rule-making happens—whether through software code or written laws enforced by police—inhabitants have a choice. We can be subjects who submit to governance without consent, or we can be citizens who grant and withhold consent—and who are ultimately responsible for whether the government we’ve consented to fosters an open, free and just society or not. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as mere users of a service and start thinking of ourselves of inhabitants of a place called the Internet. We are Netizens. Time to get more proactive about shaping the Internet’s future—and pushing its most powerful players in the direction we want them to go.

Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have taken a first step toward recognizing that they are fallible and require greater ethical oversight than shareholders, boards of directors, and markets alone can provide. Last year they helped launch the Global Network Initiative, a multistakeholder effort together with human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academics, in which they’ve pledged to uphold basic principles on free expression and privacy, committed to independent evaluations, and agreed to public accountability mechanisms. (Disclosure: I am a founding member and on the GNI board.) It’s hard to know at this point whether the GNI will succeed—it’s still very much an early-stage experiment. But it’s at least a recognition that new forms of public oversight, transparency and accountability are required to make sure that the companies who hold so much power over so many people’s lives do not abuse this power. It’s an early attempt to figure out what shape those mechanisms need to take.

In the past century many political leaders who have facilitated their countries’ peaceful transition from authoritarianism to democracy have done so because they recognized that their legitimacy and power would be strengthened—not weakened—by public oversight, institutional checks-and-balances, and clear consent-of-the-governed. Similarly, Internet and telecommunications companies around the world should recognize that submitting to greater public oversight, and doing things that facilitate a free and open Internet, will ultimately be good for their own survival. They may have simply intended to provide a commercial product or service, but they have wound up collectively creating a place that they jointly own along with other companies and with everybody who creates Internet content, hosts a website, or creates and runs applications. The new social responsibilities and obligations that come along with this role may make them uncomfortable and they may try to reject them—as many have indeed been doing adamantly. But we need to figure out how to help them understand. More importantly, it’s in our interest as netizens to figure out what carrots and sticks will be effective to get them to do right by us.

Finally, a note on the future of national governments in the Internet age. Over the last eight hundred years or so human society has seen sovereign leaders slowly come to recognize that sharing power with the people makes everybody stronger and more prosperous, and decreases the likelihood that the leaders themselves—or all their friends and family—will die defending themselves against violent revolution. We transitioned from countries run by kings and queens to countries run by presidents and prime ministers. It took a very long time for this recognition to happen in just a couple of countries and longer still for people to figure out how to implement the idea of “consent of the governed” in a relatively scaleable and sustainable way. Many more countries embraced this idea in the past century while others have failed to do so—or tried and failed, or claimed to be a “people’s” government while actually being something else. The Internet and the penetration of cyberspace into the lives of a critical mass of people around the world has created a whole new layer of struggle over sovereignty, rights, and legitimacy.

I am not one of those people who believe that the Internet is going to eliminate the human need for geographically-based government. But I do believe that we’re starting to enter a time when enlightened governments will slowly come to recognize that their legitimacy along with the well-being of the societies they govern will be improved if they figure out ways not just to peacefully coexist—but to share power with the global cyber-nation. Each has a duty to help us—citizens of both physical and cyber space—to keep the other’s power in check. Both must submit to appropriate public oversight. Both must commit to high standards of transparency if they want our trust—which they require in order to be successful and powerful for the long haul. We’re very far from figuring out how to make it all work. But it is in our own self-interest as netizens to be proactive in doing what we can to help companies and governments come to grips with what is, unavoidably, in their own long-term interest.

Got suggestions for what we might put into a Constitution for the Global Cyber-Nation? Please post your comments below or on RConversation.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online

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