SXSW Notes: “The Gatekeepers” – Jeffrey Rosen interviews Nicole Wong from Google about free speech

Nicole Wong – deputy general counsel at Google
Jeffrey Rosen – American academic and commentator on legal affairs.
Talk part of the Platinum Track event

Nicole decides whether links stay up on Google and makes content decision on Youtube.

The issue of Internet censorship is so complex it’s never about a single person, company, website. It involves government backroom providers, services like google and users. There are many ways that govs seek to control this a different levels.
At a company level we may get court orders, police show up at the door, I have had some of my employees detained.
In some of the countries we see Governments actively intimidating people in their country.
When we talk about what type data ends up on the Internet it’s much more difficult to talk about that as a single company, it’s a more difficult decision.,

Tell us about Turkey – a judge was blocking Youtube because f a video insulting Kemal Ataturk.

Youtube is a globally available service for video sharing. We’re not trying to target specifically Turkish users. But in 2007 started to see it periodically block because it is illegal in Turkey to insult Ataturk.

We had been dealing with various prosecutors and the Turkish telecom authority becuase they would wholesale block Youtube. But we could IP block from Turkey the videos that would violate law, but couldn’t censor the entire Internet for Turkish law.
Worked for a while but at 2am in the morning 67 different videos came through form the judges – went through all of them deciding which ones violated the law. Some were Kurdish Nationalism videos which are also illegal in Turkey. We agreed to block ones that advocated violence and we took them down because they violated our terms of service.
May last year on of the prosecutors decided IP blocking was insufficient. Felt insulting Turks all over the world and demanded we blocked the videos worldwide.

Youtube is blocked for a year in Turkey now. We are playing all of our legal and policy cards. This is no longer in my hands. It’s some sort of argeement we have to get to to deal with content on the Internet. Only so many tools in the toolbox.
We have lots of people reacting to complaints and flags we get from users and to review those.
Certain complaints will get escalated, e.g. requests for blocks from government – a whole company blocking us. We involve the legal department, the public policy department and the head of office and a lawyer in that country to understand if the video is violating that law.

My job is to cull all of that and decide how to deal with this.

Hard judgement calls for me. When you have assets or people on the ground that may be at risk all the principles we talk about to do are important but hard to aim.

Orchid platform popular in India and Brazil. There were a couple of groups on Orchid in India critical of the dominant party in Mumbai. It has a very violent arm. Criticised the party and the party’s deity. They were calling to look for an alternative party. There were profane and inappropriate things said about the religion. We were asked to remove all of those communities not just because it was insulting but because violence was about to erupt and people were rioting infront of the Google office in Mumbai. As much as you want to defend free speech when things get violent you have to make a decision and I err towards protecting people on the ground.
I made the decision to remove the comments against the deity, but I did not remove the criticism of the political part because it was advocating peace and it made no sense for me to remove statements on peace to quell rioting.
These were really hard decisions to make.

A lot of young people working as moderators shouldn’t be discounted. Pretty smart and they have been trained. But of course mistakes still happen. Youtube there are 15 hours of video uploaded every minute, millions of views every day so the likely hood of a mistake is going to be there. We’re lucky that are users are usually quick to let us know.

We follow the digital millennium copyright act. We do not accept liability for copyright infringement, but when we get a notification that someones copyright has been infiringed we take it down and notify the user so that they can counter argue.
There can be a great deal of abuse of what copyright holders demand to be taken down.

There was a good study down by Chilling effects .org. It’s makes transparent all demands for removal. Gives a sense of transparent – YouTube sends these removal request for that.
Assessing that there was high amount of people cliaming copyright to take down something they don’t like.

I think I’m increasingly seeing censorship at the ISP level. Google in the US, you have to serve us in the US. But the ISP is usually within country and some countries a joint partnership with Government so a good deal of Gov control so filtering at that level is easy for governments.

Its an issue we see in a number of countries. Australia was first country by law to institute filtering at the ISP level. They are a Western Democracy with a democratic mandate to filter.
There are now 6 ISPs in Australia doing a trial run on how to filter content that could be harmful to minors. We have to pay attention to these types of laws.
At one level degrading quality of bandwidth if it is uses filtering. How do we make decision which countries is it ok to filter in? Australia? China? Pakistan?
What we need to do is engage in the conversation trying to get to the purpose that the government is trying to achieve and if there is a better way to so.

Don’t want to single out Australia – trying to protect minors. It’s something Germany is doing too but with a blacklist.

We need to stop thinking that just filtering is wrong. We need to think about what are the processes that Gov can validly censor and what are situations where it is not acceptable.

I think it is better for governments to have the decision rather than to have these issues bubble up through me or someone on Youtube or Facebook

But I do think there needs to be a push to make Governments transparent about what they are doing.

My problem is scale – I don’t want to be at 2am looking at Kurdish National Videos and if you go by country by country it starts to feel very arbitrary. the next big company might be coming out of China, or Argentina. I would like to see us reach some form of International standards. We need to have a bunch of descriptions where agree to freedom of expression, access to information. If we accepted these for the internet.

Global Network Initiative. 2 years ago started conversation with companies that within Yahoo Microsoft Human Rights Watch and other NGOs and socially responsible investors and academics. to ask can we get a global set of principles. We did get to a set of principles which yahoo google and Microsoft signed up to. Processes to think about managing gov demands for censorship and user information and all audited by a 3rd party.
Huge self regulation
That gives us a group that can tell a government to say something is inconsistent with freedom of expression.
Announced 4 months ago and its still experimental
When you’re a company that has run out of all your cards in Turkey you need some other tools to deal with it.

We need to step up and do the action. When you’re operating in a certain country you’ll get a take down demand. “Others guys down the st. are doing it, you should to”
With a single organisation we can better hold the line, they can’t pick us off one by one.
We will be able to demand legal processes rather than having some companies being intimidated by a call.

You have to have something more institutional than a single person. I think we should be worried that companies may not stay good. That’s why we need them to sign up to a set of principles. Figure out as a global community still working that out.
Go back to my days as a first amendment lawyer.

First printing press then radio, then TV, then cable in the interim spaces you had time for social norms to develop and for laws to develop around these.
Ever since the internet comes out we’ve been running because every month there is another Twitter or Facebook coming out that we need to negotiate.
What we’re trying to doing with the Global Network Initiative is set some norms that will endure.

Right now in the US I think there’s a line of cases that AOL had in the 1990s a huge Zeron(sp?) v. AOL based on provision of the communications decency act section 230 – interactive computer services are immune from liability from the speech of 3rd parties.
In 1998 congress was saying the Internet needs room to grow and develop norms. If you hold the platforms responsible you will kill that ability form those platforms to exist. Immunise the platform. That has been the most important driver for growth of the Internet in the US.

Zeron shortly after Oklahoma city bombings postings started going up on AOL that were t-shirts and stickers going up that were offensive. So poor guy starts receiving death threats. Sued them anyway even though Section 230.

No other country gives that sort of immunity. That will inhibit the growth of the Internet in those countries.

I don’t think there’s a global body at this point that could enforce such immunity worldwide. Our Government should be making free expression as part of their trade talks. That might be one way to move the ball forward.

GNI has put up website to see the principles but companies are committed to ensuring not putting products or services on the ground that could harm users. Valid legal process is required before demanding information.

Never underestimate the power the Internet has just by its mere presence. Google and its various properties have been blocked in 24 different countries in the last 7 years and it’s something we have to engage on. 2004 9 mill blogs now 210million blogs. The growth of content is happening in really important ways. I think it’s persuading Governments that they can’t put a halt on everything, they have to put up with some things.

China might be a case study of that. Blogging critical of the gov is happening in China and not getting censored. Perhaps China still deciding what to do about it, but what has happened is an incredible.


Does the India case not prove you can get Google to change things if you threaten violence?

It’s a fair point are will people just never stop? At the end of the day having consulted with the police and lawyers we felt where we struck the balance. Candidly would we do it again? I don’t know. Take it on each case.

Any propaganda use on Youtube?

One of the really good things about the Youtube is that when you have propaganda is put up someone can call bullshit on it.

Can be a safe harbour we all agree on?

I don’t see that in the near future. How will we solve this problem? Will there be country IP-blocked safe zone. Virtually create the geographic physical jurisdiction. I dislike that. I think we’re benefiting hugely form cross-cultural communication. But we will continue to run into conflicts. Things will be said in India about Pakistanis that they don’t like and vice versa. We’re going to disagree and we are on a long road.

I think speech will be freer than it is now. That is the nature of this medium and the culture of all these sessions. I think that is going to move the trend towards more speech even in countries that don’t think they are ready for it.