Google Fights Global Internet Censorship
Monday, June 25, 2007; 1:56 PM
WASHINGTON -- Once relatively indifferent to government affairs, Google Inc. is seeking help inside the Beltway to fight the rise of Web censorship worldwide.
The online search giant is taking a novel approach to the problem by asking U.S. trade officials to treat Internet restrictions as international trade barriers, similar to other hurdles to global commerce, such as tariffs.
Google sees the dramatic increase in government Net censorship, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, as a potential threat to its advertising-driven business model, and wants government officials to consider the issue in economic, rather than just political, terms.
"It's fair to say that censorship is the No. 1 barrier to trade that we face," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of public policy and government affairs. A Google spokesman said Monday that McLaughlin has met with officials from the U.S. Trade Representative's office several times this year to discuss the issue.
"If censorship regimes create barriers to trade in violation of international trade rules, the USTR would get involved," USTR spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said. She added though that human rights issues, such as censorship, typically falls under the purview of the State Department.
While human rights activists are pleased with Google's efforts to fight censorship, they harshly criticized the company early last year for agreeing to censor its Web site in China, which has the second-largest number of Internet users in the world.
The company defends its actions, saying the Chinese government made it a condition of allowing Chinese users access to Google Web pages. China has an Internet firewall that slows or disrupts Chinese users from accessing foreign uncensored Web sites.
Censorship online has risen dramatically the past five years, belying the hype of the late 1990s, which portrayed the Internet as largely impervious to government interference.
A study released last month by the OpenNet Initiative found that 25 of 41 countries surveyed engage in Internet censorship. That's a dramatic increase from the two or three countries guilty of the practice in 2002, says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, who helped prepare the report.
China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, India, Singapore and Thailand, among others, are increasingly blocking or filtering Web pages, Palfrey says.
Governments "are having more success than the more idealistic of us thought," acknowledges Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Still, even government filtering isn't always successful. In a brutal regime like Iran, which filters Web content, there are nearly 100,000 bloggers, making Farsi "one of the most blogged languages in the world," says Palfrey.