Google’s Public Policy Blog has a post up entitled Promoting free expression on the internet. It’s a somewhat self-congratulatory read, but I think from it we can glean a strategic response to a question that has bugged this blog on many occasions, usually in the context of pressure by (typically autocratic) governments on Google to censor imagery: What would Google do if the government of a country in which it has significant investments (say, India) threatens significant financial repercussions if Google fails to globally censor its data?
The answer, it turns out (and I think it is a good one) is to get the US government to link its trade policy to free expression. Not only would it act as a disincentive to censorious governments, it would also prevent the possibility of a scenario where Google is censured by, say China, only to have a more pliant competitor enjoy the spoils. The possibility of such a scenario creates a moral hazard risk among US competitors in China.
Here’s Google’s Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong articulating her message at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law on May 20, 2008:
The good bits:
We believe it is vital for the US government do more to make internet censorship a central element of our bilateral and multilateral agendas.
We have become convinced a single company can only do so much to fight censorship regimes around the world, and to meet the challenges in this area we recommend increased prominence authority and fund be given to the State Department and the USTR.
We continue to urge governments to recognize that information restrictions on the internet have a trade dimension.
Her examples never touch on what I hope is currently still a hypothetical government demand for global censorship by Google. She mentions YouTube a lot, which gets its plug pulled regularly by insecure government with a chip on their shoulder, but these episodes have only ever resulted in Google censoring content locally.
I believe Nicole Wong is sincere when she says “Google’s commitment to freedom of expression is at the core of everything we do,” and I am glad that Google is urging more involvement by the US government. (I am ashamed that European governments far too often act as censors rather than defenders of free expression. Criminalizing holocaust denial makes a mockery of subsequent free expression defences of cartoons caricaturing Mohammed.)
Still, just as the western governments could do more, so could Google. Here’s my list of suggestions in the field of geospatial imagery:
- More transparency: Censored imagery is most useless when you aren’t aware it is censored. I’d like to know if the specific imagery I am zooming into on Google Earth has been censored by government agencies before release to Google (as is the case with imagery of the Netherlands). Even better would be a layer that pinpoints all found instances of censorship. Googlers can’t be expected to find them all, but perhaps this is a job for Google Earth Community?
- More proactive censorship circumvention: Google often has several possible vendors to choose from for a specific region. In the Netherlands, Google chose censored but high-resolution aerial imagery instead of uncensored but lower-resolution satellite imagery. But why choose? Why not use the lower resolution imagery as a base layer and then superimpose the censored high resolution imagery, though not until the censored bits have been made transparent? Or else why not offer both imagery datasets separately, perhaps as an advanced option?
- More preëmptive policy statements: There is still no official policy statement that I am aware of that articulates Google’s stock response to government demands of imagery censorship. Google Maps in China has no satellite imagery at all and borders compliant with Chinese sensitivities. Is this an option going forward for other countries if they demand it? Is replacing newer imagery with older in a war zone at the request of allied forces, as was the case in Basra, a repeatable occurrence? If so, which militaries qualify? Are the remaining blurry bits around Washington an oversight, a legal requirement or a voluntary patriotic decision?
- Help preserve the historical record: Google often updates its imagery, replacing older imagery with newer. But that old imagery, especially when juxtaposed with the new, can be a valuable tool in keeping tabs on past or present injustices. One notable case in India had dated Google Earth imagery make a liar of a government official. In Zimbabwe, comparing imagery of the same area over time showed up Mugabe’s efforts to erase a settlement. So why not preserve all older imagery, perhaps in a timeline-based system?
Finally, there is one more thing Google should urge the US government to do: End the idiotic ban on downloading Google Earth from places like Sudan, Cuba and North Korea.