Posts about billofrights

Guardian column: Google is our ambassador

Here’s my Guardian column this week on Google and China. See also this post proposing a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace.

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This year at Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a room of journalists that his company is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force. Yet in its showdown with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet. Well, somebody has to.

Next to no one has been willing to stand up to China’s suppression of speech online. Other companies—Yahoo—have handed over information that led to the imprisonment of dissidents. More companies—Cisco—have helped China build its Great Firewall. Many more—from News Corp to the New York Times Company—have coveted the Chinese market and overlooked the regime’s tyranny to do business there. Governments have hardly been better, doing little to nothing to pressure China over human and digital rights.

But Google did. Now it has turned off the filter it never should have created if it wanted to stay true to its don’t-be-evil dictum. It has dared the Chinese government to block search and speech and expose its censorship to its people. By its action, Google also dares other companies and governments to follow.

The fight against apartheid in South Africa had its Sullivan Principles; the fight for free speech and a free, secure internet now has its Google Principles. I don’t mean to equate the virtual repression in the Chinese internet with the racial, physical, and economic repression that occurred in South Africa under apartheid. But in both instances, there came a time when companies had to ask—or be asked—whether they could justify supporting tyrannical regimes. Pulling out of China is a moral decision.

Today, moral decisions are also business decisions. London economist Umair Haque argues that when we can all talk about companies online, the price of doing evil has increased. Google is repairing its social standing.

Cynics say Google left China because it was beaten by Baidu; few Western companies are competing well against Chinese counterparts (even Rupert Murdoch has been foiled). But I say Google is instead defending its entire business—because it is defending the internet itself against censorship, government control, espionage, and attack.

Google’s business strategy is dead simple: The more we use the internet, the more Google makes. If governments are allowed and enabled to restrict freedom on the internet to a lowest common denominator (as the U.K.’s libel tourism does for publishing), and if we worry that our data in the cloud is not secure, and if citizens of totalitarian states fear the internet will be used to jail them, then we will trust and use it less. Google loses. We all lose.

But even Google cannot fight this alone. “No single company and no single industry can tackle Internet censorship on its own,” Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, told a Congressional panel last week. He urged Congress to consider withholding development aid for countries that restrict online speech and including a pledge for free speech online in trade agreements. Davidson said 40 nations censor the internet today and 25 governments have blocked Google.

I wait to see what governments in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe will do to support the freedom and security of the Chinese people and of the internet (so far, it seems, the White House is applauding Google’s actions with one hand). I wait to see other companies matching Google’s guts.

Or perhaps what I should wish instead for popular support for free speech in the internet—a movement from us, the society of users. That is how companies and governments were pressured to divest their interests in South Africa. So where is our outcry for freedom and security? The internet is ours to lose.

In 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a rousing Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (http://bit.ly/dofi): “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one….”

Perhaps we now need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace to claim and secure our freedom to connect, speak, assemble, and act online; to each control our own identities and data; to speak our languages; to protect both what is public and private; and to assure openness. (Please come and suggest and discuss its articles at http://bit.ly/cyberrights.)

With that, our diplomatic mission to the old world—Google—can fight for what’s right. After all, someone must.

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles. Also discuss at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Here are mine:

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A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

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More:
* Bruce Sterling quoting Timothy Garton Ash on the state of freedom of information.
* Ethan Zuckerman: We can’t circumvent our way around censorship.
* Ethan Zuckerman on internet freedom.
* Rebecca MacKinnon’s Congressional testimony on internet freedom and Chinese censorship.
* Kevin Marks compares China’s policies and the U.K.’s Digital Britain bill.
* Clay Shirky: “What forces Google to have a foreign policy is that what they’re exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom.”

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Thanks to Benoit Raphael here is a French version of the Bill of Rights and here is a German version at Zeit Online. Now thanks to Itai Alter, here it is as a Google Doc in Hebrew.

And now, most appropriately, in Chinese. Note, however, the disclaimer at the bottom of that page (via Google Translate): “?This translation is only the purpose of language learning and reading, the original author and the translator and the translation of personal opinion has nothing to do made by Network].”

Also in Norwegian thanks to Arne Halvorsen. I hope that Arabic and Persian are coming.

And then (in German) there is an alternative version.

Another German translation here.

Italy endangers the web

Italy is endangering the web. It convicted three Google executives for privacy violations for a video that was posted on YouTube Google Video that Google took down when it received a complaint. By holding Google liable for the actions of a user, the Italian court is in essence requiring Google and every other web site to review and vet everything anyone puts online. The practical implication of that, of course, is that no one will let anyone put anything online because the risk is too great. I wouldn’t let you post anything here. My ISP wouldn’t let me post anything on its servers. Google wouldn’t let me post anything on it’s services. And that kills the internet.

In America, we have a First Amendment for the web called Section 230, which every nation needs. Section 230 say, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It gives a provider safe haven to take down content that violates laws without finding the provider liable. The American Congress and courts knew — with impressive foresight — that such protection was necessary to protect discussion and free speech online. Of course, the interpretation of the law is an evolving beast, but the principle is vital.

Google says of the Italian decision:

It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

In the global, interconnected web, we live in constant danger of the lowest common denominator, of one court, legislature, or regime opening up liability that affects risk and behavior everywhere — like the U.K’s libel tourism, which enables miscreants to sue publishers if only one person saw the publication in the U.K.

This is why we need a set of principles protecting our freedom of speech on the web: not a law, not a treaty, nothing from government — see John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence for cyberspace. In the Google/China situation — in which Google acted as a quasi-state to protect rights (albeit belatedly) according to its principles — Rebecca MacKinnon argues for a constitution for cyberspace but I worry that it would become overloaded with clauses and conditions. In American historical terms, I say we already have a Declaration of Independence and I’d skip over the Constitution to get a Bill of RIghts that begins with its First Amendment: governments shall make no law no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Start there.