Free expression on the internet – the neogeo perspective

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.

6 thoughts on “Free expression on the internet – the neogeo perspective”

  1. Stefan:

    Call me cynical, but I wouldn’t put freedom of expression at the core everything Google does; I’d put the extraction of advertising revenue–often in very small increments–from shuttling massive amounts of information around so as to foster the encounters of advertisers with their target audiences. To that end, “freedom of expression” means to me the ability to move bits and bytes in whatever combinations will engender the meeting of an advertiser with an intended audience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as happy as the next freeloader to use all the technology without feeling compelled to click on an advertiser link. But I become a bit skeptical when a fantastically successful private company leads with a moral argument to explain why the US Government should carry its water (not that the US Govt doesn’t carry a lot of water for a lot of special interests). Intellectual property has already shown itself to be notoriously difficult to port into trade agreements, let alone enforce even when specified; protecting against Internet censorship seems an even taller order. (Although it is interesting to note how scrupulous the Chinese have been about cracking down on the sale of unlicensed Olympic-related merchandise…)

    I’ll end on a Milton Friedman-esque note by saying that the profit motive I alluded to above has propelled the dissemination of geospatial information forward at a rate that no government or international body, no matter how nobly intentioned, could pull off with a 10 year start. However, I’d regret to see today’s economic success based on innovation and technological savvy calcify into tomorrow’s conglomerate relying on the US Gov’t to protect its markets a la an Archer-Daniels Midland or a Cargill.


  2. I think it would be great if outdated imagery were available, but there probably is a financial consideration for Google in that DigitalGlobe retains the copyright and would probably want more money for letting it be used into perpetuity.

  3. This reminds me of President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1960 proposal for a “UN aerial reconnaissance capability […] to detect preparations for attack” to operate “in the territories of all nations prepared to accept such inspection.” Eisenhower had pledged that “the United States is prepared not only to accept United Nations aerial surveillance, but to do everything in its power to contribute to the rapid organization and successful operation of such international surveillance.”

    My, my how times have changed.


  4. Lets make up our minds here. We do or don’t want the US meddling in others affairs?

    I thought the US was the new Satan in the world and we suppose to not stick our noses in places.


  5. Here is one reason why you might want a legally enforced level playing field:

    BBC: Blackberry spurns Indian spy call

    Good on Blackberry, but should this result in Blackberry devices being banned in India, I certainly wouldn’t want another US company, like Apple, winning market share by offering to give India a master key to its devices.

  6. Well, each coutry is allowed to have their own set of rules, the UN hasn’t taken over completely at least yet. ;)

    Not everything is about a level playing field. Life isn’t fair. No matter how much people try, like not keeping score in games to giving awards to everyone.

    If a company loses out because they don’t like the countries laws. They are free to chose whether or not to play the game or leave(like in China). If they lose market share because they leave, so what.

    What shouldn’t happen, petition the US to twist someones arm because they don’t like another countries laws and are losing market share or money.

    If they don’t like the laws and want them changed. They should work through the countries own internal setup instead of coming in from the outside.

    I’m talking about market issues, not moral, which is a different can of worms.

    In the end, I still come back to. When is ok or not for the US stick it’s nose into others affairs? It seems it all depends on ones own “investments” and the direction the wind is blowing.


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