Google Inc.'s fight with China over Internet censorship made headlines around the world, but it has been engaged in similar battles around the globe.
At least 25 countries, many of them with repressive regimes but even those with democracies, have at times blocked the public’s access to Google over the last several years. All told, more than 40 countries actively censor the Internet, compared with a handful in 2004, which is when the OpenNet Initiative, a group of academics, began tracking global censorship.
Censorship runs the gamut. Denmark bans child pornography. Iran has the most extensive filtering and surveillance system of any country, blocking access to all online content critical of the government. It stepped up its Internet crackdown and surveillance during the disputed presidential election last summer.
Some countries are setting up powerful electronic barriers, similar to the “Great Firewall” in China, to control what the public can access. Others, such as Belize, have blocked Google Talk and Microsoft’s MSN Messenger, as well as other services that allow people to talk to one another over the Internet.
“China has gotten a lot of press, but for us this is a global issue,” said Nicole Wong, Google’s deputy general counsel. “Censorship has certainly been on an upward trajectory, not just in China.”
The Internet giant unplugged its search engine in mainland China last month to protest government restrictions. Google said China was where it wanted to take its most public stand because it felt the communist nation was becoming increasingly more repressive.
This shrinking of the World Wide Web is alarming consumer groups, academics and companies such as Google and Yahoo Inc. They argue that such state-imposed restrictions go too far, fettering access to politically or socially sensitive information on a wide range of subjects including abortion and euthanasia. They warn that if not carefully monitored, such restrictions could ultimately be used to sway public opinion and suppress voices outside the mainstream.
Equally vexed are government agencies and political leaders elsewhere who are trying to figure out just how big a role they should — or technologically can — play in protecting their citizens from online abuses, privacy incursions and other dangers. Approximately 32% of the world’s population has access to the Internet filtered by local governments, according to the OpenNet Initiative.
“Until now, mainstream governments had not gone too far down the path of technical filtering and automatic surveillance,” said Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain, one of OpenNet’s investigators. “Google is concerned that has changed and, as a result, it wants to raise the alarm and push back where it can.”
The potential outcome, said Zittrain, is sobering: Whether censorship will ultimately reshape the Web — and how.
These days, few understand these challenges better than Google.
As the world’s largest gateway to the Web, it processes nearly two-thirds of the world’s search requests. The company whose mission is to make information universally available says it’s increasingly playing the role of gatekeeper as governments step up requests to limit information.
In Australia, the government is advocating for the most restrictive online filters ever contemplated by a Western nation — ones that would force Internet service providers to block access to, among other things, certain websites containing sexual violence, child pornography and other objectionable material in the name of protecting children.
Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy defended the firewall as a much-needed measure to combat illegal activity.
With the exception of child pornography, Google does not proactively screen content. Instead, the company makes that determination after it is notified that content on its search engine or other services such as YouTube may be violating the law in a particular country. Google then investigates whether the Web content violates its user rules, which ban child pornography and hate speech, or local laws.
Even then, however, the company tries to removes as little information as possible. It has severed links to sites that promote Nazi material in its search engines in France, Germany and Poland, and removed discussions on its social networking service Orkut in India that the government said violated restrictions on incendiary speech.
Yet governments are increasingly looking to intermediaries such as Google to implement censorship and surveillance, said Cynthia Wong, staff attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology. As a result, she said, “Companies like Google face difficult ethical questions.”
Google’s decision four years ago to enter the Chinese market sparked heated debate at the time. Company officials said they struggled over how to reconcile their philosophical opposition to censorship with their economic desire to establish the company in the world’s fastest-growing Internet market.
The turning point came in January when Google said it would stop censoring search results on its Chinese site, Google.cn, as required by Chinese law. It cited increased restrictions on Internet freedom and a series of attempts to hack its systems from within China. Foreign companies rarely publicly challenge China’s policies or threaten to scale back or leave a market considered so crucial. But last month, Google redirected users to its Hong Kong search engine after saying the business climate in China had become untenable.
Google’s retreat from China was heralded as a free-speech victory and a watershed moment for the Mountain View, Calif., company. Earlier this month, the company accused Vietnam of stifling political dissent with cyber attacks. Vietnam denied the accusation.
The company started pressing Washington for support, urging the Obama administration and lawmakers to treat unwarranted limits on freedom of online expression as both a human rights issue and a trade barrier.
“It is a battle,” Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said at a meeting of the American Society of News Editors on Sunday. “We know that there is a reasonably large group of people in China who are seeking non-censored information.”
Critics say the company’s earlier willingness to work with Chinese censorship laws may have actually exacerbated the problem, and emboldened some countries to tighten their citizens’ access to the Internet. The stakes, they say, are high.
“One of the great features of the Internet is the ability to connect across countries, cultures and jurisdictions,” said Wendy Seltzer, project leader for the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a site that fights for free speech, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
“As countries start filtering the Internet and block people’s ability to make references and communication, it decreases the utility of the Internet for all of us.”