To Protect Global Free Speech, Google May Need to Take Some Drastic Actions

Eleven and half or so years ago, a younger and more darkly bearded version of myself gave an invited talk at Google’s L.A. offices that I called “Internet & Empires” ( Things were still pretty new there — I believe I was the first external speaker that they taped, and since there was no podium yet I presented the talk while sitting on the edge of a table (which actually turns out to work pretty well).

The talk had been scheduled well in advance, so it was a total coincidence that Google had earlier that day announced their (ultimately ill-fated) agreement with China to censor Chinese search results as demanded by the Chinese government.

I had already planned to talk about topics such as censorship and net neutrality. I even had managed to work in a somewhat pithy reference to the classic 1956 sci-fi film “Forbidden Planet” and the downfall of the Krell.

Back at the time of that talk, I was fairly critical of Google’s privacy and data management practices in some key respects. In ensuing years, Google evolved into a world-class champion for data privacy, user control over data, data transparency, and data portability. I’ve been honored to work with them and to put considerable thought into the complex ways that Google-related issues can be seen as proxies for critical policy issues affecting the entire Internet.

During the talk, I mentioned the newly announced China situation. I explained that while I understood the reasoning behind the decision to launch a censored version of Google Search for China (essentially, that some access to Google Search was better than none, and might help push China toward reforms), I suspected that this effort would end badly.

My main concern was based on history. Once authorities and governments start down the censorship path, they virtually always attempt to expand its reach, both in terms of content and geography. Government censorship is in many ways the classic example of the “camel’s nose under the tent” — you almost inevitably end up with a complete camel smashing everything inside.

And so it was with China and Google. China kept demanding more and more control, more and more censorship. Ultimately, Google reversed their decision, and wisely ceased participation in China’s vast censorship regime. Some other firms have not been as ethical as Google in this regard, and are still kowtowing to China’s censorship czars.

Fast forward to today. Depressingly, we find that in major respects the censorship and net neutrality issues that I discussed more than a decade earlier are in even worse shape now.

Dominant ISPs have been using dishonest political gamesmanship — often outright lies — to trample net neutrality, as if they weren’t already raking in the dough from often captive subscribers.

And in the censorship realm, the threats are more ominous than ever — not just from totalitarian countries like China or Russia, but from western countries as well — like Canada. Like France. And more broadly, from the European Union itself.

Today we’ve learned that Apple has reportedly surrendered to Chinese officials and has suddenly removed VPN apps from the Chinese users’ version of Apple’s App Store. These apps are crucial not only to the free speech of Chinese users but also in many situations to their physical safety in that dictatorial regime.

In some countries, a single Facebook post deemed to be critical of the local royal or elected despot — or other government officials — can trigger decades-long prison sentences.

And even in the so-called “enlightened” western environs of Canada, France, and the European Union more generally, domestic officials are attempting to impose global censorship over Google search results (via the horrific “Right To Be Forgotten” and other twisted means) — all in an effort to each become censors dictating what everyone else on this planet can see.

Success in such efforts would result in a lowest common denominator rush to the bottom, with politicians and other leaders around the world all attempting to cleanse search results of any materials that they find to be politically or otherwise personally offensive — or even simply inconvenient.

Unfortunately, all of this is very much in keeping with the predictions that I made in that Google talk years ago.

And here’s a new prediction. While Google will valiantly battle these oppressive forces in courts, in the long run the masters of censorship will continue to expand their choking grip on free speech globally, unless more drastic measures are deployed by free speech champions.

Imagine that you own a large store stocked with all manner of merchandise for a wide variety of customers. Now let’s say that you had some customers who insisted that they wanted to continue patronizing your store, but that they personally disapproved of various items that you stocked, and demanded that you remove them — even though those items were still very important to the vast majority of your other customers.

Most likely you’d tell the customers making those demands to either grow up — realize that they are not the only fish in the sea — or to take their business elsewhere. Period.

This is very much the kind of situation that Google and various other large Internet service firms are now facing. Users around the world demand access to the services that these firms provide, but increasingly their own governments are demanding to dictate not only what users in their own countries can access and see, but are also demanding the right to censor other users everywhere on Earth.

Here’s my admittedly drastic proposal to deal with these scenarios: Cut those countries off from the associated services. No more Facebook, no more Google Search or Gmail for them. No more cloud services. And so on.

Let these countries’ leaders deal directly with their citizens who would no longer have access to the global services on which they’ve come to depend for their business and personal communications, entertainment, and much more in their daily lives.

Tough love? You betcha. But this could end up being necessary.

If the would-be global censorship czars can’t behave like decent 21st century adults, with an understanding that they do not have the right to dictate planetary content controls, then let them build their own services in their own countries using their own money — but no longer would they be permitted to leverage our services to dictate terms to the rest of us.

Obviously, given the vast sums of money at stake, taking such a path would be a very difficult decision for these firms. But I would assert that permitting domestic governments veto power over your global services will be absolutely deadly in the long run, and that the time to stamp out this malignancy is now, before it spreads even more and has achieved a veneer of a new, repressive status quo.

In fact, the odds are that serious threats of service cutoffs would likely serve to cause some major rethinking in government circles, well before actual cutoffs would be necessary.

The Chinese “death by a thousand cuts” torture seems applicable here. Given escalating censorship trends, it’s difficult to postulate how to successfully fight this scourge through litigation alone in the long run. Meanwhile, individual censorship orders are likely to expand massively both in scope and number, eating away ever more of global free speech by increasing degrees each and every time.

While continuing to fight this trend in the courts is of course an appropriate primary tactic, I’m ever more convinced that the sorts of drastic actions outlined above — details to be determined — should be under consideration now, so that rapid deployment is possible if current censorship trends continue unabated.

It is indeed extremely unfortunate that we’ve reached the point where actions such as these must even be seriously contemplated, but that’s the reality that we now are facing.

Be seeing you.