Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Digitdoodles' Edict Number One - Thou Shall Have Free Speech.

Google's decision to censor an anti-Islamic video in Libya and Egypt underscores the delicate balance we experience as a global community so well connected on our digitdoodles. Under immense public pressure, including lives lost, Google pulled the plug at least temporarily within Libya and Egypt.

In a public statement, YouTube expressed concerns for Free Speech but noted the exceptional circumstances of violence. You Tube gave the usual “our hearts are with . . .” speech, which turns the question towards the public: are you so willing to have your free speech at the cost of innocent lives? If so, then let blood be on your hands. Google wants no part of it.

I can understand Google’s position and unique risk. Its platforms are accessible nearly around the world. It provides a valuable service to the global digitdoodle community where we come together and build unimaginable things even if it is only in digitspace. Google’s operations implicitly suggest a duty to regulate its content accordingly with the laws of nations and within its many sovereign jurisdictions. Many countries put immense value on lives and have a Good Samaritan law of some sort; Google is perhaps choosing to risk the Free Speech as a safer bet—a sort of diversification of social risk in the geo-political market place if you will. I wouldn’t want to face the grieving family on the other side either. I’d rather battle it out with the First Amendment nerds. So the “our hearts are with them” argument stands.        

With this implicit duty to regulate, Google perhaps signals a paradigm shift from the once global reality of governmental politics to now prevalent company policies. As with the all-important glue that binds the nations—a protective order of free speech that encourages cooperation and understanding, we now see companies play more of an "adjudicatory role on free speech." Where stakeholders often demand immediate action to protect the interests of their companies, a company like Google really has very little choice. (I would imagine decision to do nothing might also land Google in trouble.)

This paradigm shift comes at an interesting time after the Citizen United case. But it also solicits criticisms from powerbases such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation,

"Once YouTube has made the decision to pro-actively censor its content, they start down a slippery slope that ends in YouTube Knows Best moral policing of every video on their site. It is disappointing to see YouTube turn its back on policies that have allowed it to become a such a strong platform for freedom of expression.

Global Voices’ co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon questioned if this is the start of something more sinister in theory: that violence could be used to stifle expression.

To Google’s defense, it does make earnest efforts to highlight the challenges they face in protecting users' rights to free expression. It publishes a regular transparency report detailing government requests to restrict their content. It has also been active in with the Global Network Initiative, aimed to advocate for free speech. In general, without exceptional circumstances, Google is playing nice.

There is a lesson to be learned from Google. While companies cannot predict when and if any similar exceptional circumstances will occur to affect them, companies should have policy on hand to decide who is responsible to make decisions in a crisis and what values and maxims ought this person follow. The threshold question perhaps depends on local laws and companies should be preparing to play an adjudicative role. Having a plan and a principle guide will ease public confrontations with free speech, but a company must always remember Digitdoodles' Edict Number One - Thou Shall Have Free Speech. Or else the digitdoodlers shall rise.   

And speaking of Free Speech, here is something completely different for you U.S. digitdoodlers out there: 

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