Do U.S. Internet companies "betray free speech"? A recent New York Times editorial believes so, and calls out Yahoo in particular for having a "gallingly backward understanding of the value of free expression." But the editorial missed the point, as my colleague Steve DelBianco spelled out in a letter-to-the-editor this past weekend:
Leading Internet companies want to do everything possible to protect their customers, and several are working with human rights advocates to develop ways to more effectively push back on the demands of repressive regimes.
Despite your blithe assertion, however, these companies need to abide by the laws of the land. These companies worry not only about customers going to jail but also their own employees. For example, the head of eBay India was arrested when a user posted an objectionable video to an eBay site.
The real question is as Steve asks: In a China
with no American content or online services, will the goals of free speech and
civil rights be better served? The answer should be an obvious and emphatic "No!"
We really don’t want our companies to get up and leave. Rather, we need a "playbook" of realistic tactics online companies can use to effectively push back on government demands for removing content or revealing user information.
I’ve been told that the Center for Democracy and Technology is working on this along with Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and free expression advocates like Amnesty International.
The playbook idea was discussed at the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro last month. In sports terms (soccer) it’d go something like this: The soccer coach is the provider of online services like email, hosting, blogs, and social networking sites. The players are the customers and users trying to express themselves while living in a particular country. The referees represent the government. Steve, who was at the Forum, discusses the playbook analogy as follows:
Naturally, the coach wants his players to be aggressive and play with abandon, but not to provoke a whistle or a red card. But it’s tough to know how or when these referees will make unpredictable judgment calls for things like dangerous play or persistent infringement. And these referees have the power to shut-down the entire game if players are showing too much ‘free expression’.
The principles discussed on our panel are like a playbook to help a coach step-in and aggressively argue a referee’s call, to appeal a player suspension, or even move the game to another field. There’s even a section of this playbook on how to lobby for changes to the rules of the game.
p>It’s always best to be in the game than to be on the sidelines, but that doesn’t mean that the rules of the game shouldn’t be changed.