Reporters Without Borders wrote to Eric Schmidt, Executive chairman of Google, on 8 February to express its concern about recent changes to the terms of service of its Blogger blog-publishing platform. A response was received from Google on 13 February. See below.
Letter from Reporters Without Borders to Eric Schmidt, Executive chairman of Google
Eric E. Schmidt
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway Mountain View CA 94043
Paris, 8 February 2012
Dear Mr. Schmidt,
The international media freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders would like to voice its concern about the recent changes to the way your Blogger platform operates. The introduction of “country redirect” – switching users to the domain of the country where they are located – is strangely reminiscent of the country-by-country censorship recently announced by Twitter, which we criticized as dangerous for online free speech.
The procedure is of course different. Visitors to Blogger.com are beginning to be redirected to country-specific URLs. A user reading a blog may find himself doing so from within his country domain. To our understanding, if we try to visit name.blogspot.com and the Blogspot servers detect from your IP address that we are in France, we would be redirected to name.blogspot.fr. In other words, the ccTLD (country-code top level domain) would correspond to the country where we happen to be at the time.
We hailed Google’s decision to stop censoring its search engine in China as a victory for free expression. But this new policy change worries us. Google has explained using localized domains will permit greater flexibility in complying with content removal requests, allowing users to manage content removal on a per country basis and limit the impact to the smallest number of readers. We nonetheless wonder if this is not a prelude to new concessions to local legislation that contravene international standards guaranteeing free speech and human rights.
Country redirect is so far only in effect in a few countries, including India, where Google has been under pressure in the courts in recent months. Which are the next countries where you plan to deploy it on Blogger? Are you going to exclude countries that do not respect free speech and flout Internet freedom? In the countries where you do deploy it, what criteria will you use for complying with removal requests? Will a court order be mandatory for you to comply or could a simple request from the authorities suffice? Do you already consider rejecting some requests, as suggested by concrete cases detailed in the Google Transparency Report?
We fear that country redirect will just be interpreted by Internet censors as an encouragement to request more country-level censorship than they would have dared to request worldwide. These changes so far only apply to the Blogger platform. Could they later be applied to Google Search and other Google tools? According to the Google blog, readers will always be able to reach the international (and uncensored) version of a blog by adding “ncr/” (which stands for “No Country Redirect”) to the end of the URL (name.blogspot.com/ncr/). This is necessary but it is not enough. How many readers will know that this option exists and will think of using it?
Transparency and posting censored content on the ChillingEffects.org website do not offset the harm caused by the withdrawal of the content, whose impact is more often local than international. To find censored content, the reader has to know that content has been censored.
The free flow of information online must be based on the principle that the user finds content by doing a search, not on the need to search for specific content that must be known about in advance.
Above all, this move sounds the knell of the Internet as a worldwide entity that transcends physical frontiers. The very principle of geolocated content withdrawal is dangerous because it destroys the Internet’s unity, breaks it into separate pieces and creates digital divides. Giving users access to a different version of the Internet that depends on their location violates freedom of information. Making information available only to the residents of countries that respect civil liberties is a form of digital discrimination.
It is reprehensible that repressive governments restrict their population to a controlled Intranet and it is disturbing, at the very least, that private sector companies and technical service providers allow themselves to be used to help establish censorship at the local level. We urge you to do your best to resist this pressure, which is prejudicial to the free flow of information and ideas online.
We look forward to your reply.
With kind regards,
Director Reporters Without Borders
Dear Olivier Basille,
Thank you for your letter. We appreciate you sharing your feedback with us and understand your concern about anything that would diminish freedom of expression on the Internet.
We believe our policies are consistent in support of freedom. Four years ago we first outlined our approach to removing content from Google products and services. Our approach hasn’t changed.
At Google, we have a bias in favor of free expression—not just because it’s a key tenet of free societies, but also because more information generally means more choice, more power, more economic opportunity and more freedom for people. As Article 19 of the United Nations’ 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.”
That said, we recognize that there are limits. In some areas it’s obvious where to draw the line. For example, we have an all-product ban on child pornography. But in other areas, like extremism, it gets complicated because our products are available in numerous countries with widely varying laws and cultures.
When we remove web pages from our Search index when required by law, we post a notice to Chilling Effects. For example, if we are notified about specific pages that glorify Nazism, which is prohibited by German law, then we remove those specific pages from Google.de (our German domain).
For products like Blogger and YouTube—where we host the content—we encourage users to express themselves freely, but we also want to ensure that people behave responsibly, so we set guidelines covering the use of our different services. For example, no hate speech, no copyright-infringing content, no death threats, no incitement to violence. When we are notified about content that either violates those guidelines or breaks the law—for example, we receive a court order—we will remove it, or restrict it in the country where it’s illegal.
One final point—none of this is simple. Dealing with controversial content, is well … controversial. It’s why we always start from the principle that more information is better, and why we’ve worked hard to be transparent about the removals we make.
William Echikson Head of Free Expression, Europe, Middle East and Africa