Our challenge: Keeping the Internet open

The Internet is one of the world’s most important means of free expression. Yet censorship of the Web is growing; more than 40 governments censor information today, up from about four in 2002. And some governments are blocking — or proposing to block — content even before it reaches their citizens. Authoritarian countries are building firewalls and cracking down on dissent, dealing harshly with anyone who breaks the rules.

We at Google believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship online. That’s why we are launching a tool that will give people information about the government requests for content removal and user data that Google receives from around the world.

Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies to remove content from our services. Law enforcement entities such as local and federal police request information about the users of our services and products. Many of these requests are entirely legitimate, such as those seeking the removal of child pornography or information needed for criminal investigations. Historically, data about these activities have not been broadly available, but we want to change that.

Unless companies, governments and individuals do something, the Internet we know is likely to become ever more restricted — taking choice and control away from users and putting more power in the hands of those who would limit access to information. The global community must actively ensure that the critical elements of an open, transparent and free Internet are recognized, respected and consciously preserved. It’s critical to be vigilant about any erosion of these principles, on our doorstep or elsewhere.

Google has a four-part plan to help encourage access to online information:

First, we’re trying to change the behavior of repressive governments. We encourage governments that value openness to use trade agreements and other trade tools to promote the free flow of information on the Internet; to seek binding commitments wherever possible; and to find ways to redress favoritism shown by some governments for domestic companies over foreign-based technology companies.

Second, we’re committed to developing external partnerships to establish guiding principles for dealing with issues of free expression. Three years ago, Google joined negotiations with Microsoft, Yahoo, human rights groups, and others in Europe and the United States to establish a code of conduct for how technology companies operating in repressive regimes could best promote freedom of expression and protect the privacy of users. The result was the Global Network Initiative, which has defined shared public principles for protecting user privacy and freedom of expression, and also provided a platform where companies, human rights groups and others have come together to work collaboratively against government challenges to user rights.

Third, we’re helping to build support online to protest repression. Google has provided resources to maintain and expand the work of groups such as the Open Net Initiative, which tracks global trends on Internet censorship, and the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto, which monitors censorship and helps develop circumvention tools. For years Google has awarded scholarships to dissident bloggers to help them attend conferences such as Global Voices, where they can learn skills and form networks inside and outside their countries. We do regular training sessions on our tools, current threats and circumvention technology with visiting dissidents.

Finally, we’re looking into how we can better provide resources and support for developing technology designed to combat and circumvent Internet censorship.

The inherently global, borderless nature of the Internet means that policies created to govern content in a few countries can affect all of us. We believe that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. But we also recognize that freedom of expression cannot — and should not — come without some limits. It’s hard to decide where those boundaries should be drawn. Google, which has services in more than 100 countries, all with different national laws and cultural norms, confronts this challenge many times every day.

When we receive government requests to remove content from our sites, we are as transparent as possible with our users about what we have been required to block or remove so that they understand they may not be getting the full picture. The tool we are unveiling takes this transparency a step further and provides the total number of government requests we have received broken down by country, along with the percentage with which we have complied.

The data aren’t perfect. For example, the statistics reflect the number of requests, but any single request may seek the removal of more than one URL. We’re new at this and are still learning how to best collect and present this information. As we gain experience, we expect to refine this tool and to fine-tune the types of data we display. For now, it is our hope that this data will prompt a conversation about freedom of expression on the Internet.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. We assess every country we decide to enter, and we have to decide case by case where to draw boundaries. But the bottom line remains the same: We have a responsibility to ensure that our users have maximum ability to express themselves and access to the maximum amount of information.

David Drummond, chief legal officer of Google Inc. and senior vice president of corporate development.