Aspen Ideas: In Google we trust?
July 8, 2010
ASPEN – Google will remain diligent about fending off government efforts to obtain information about its users, whether requests are coming from China or the United States, the international search engine’s top lawyer said Wednesday.
David Drummond told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival that China is far from the only government that wants information about Google’s users, even if efforts by that country have been the most visible lately.
“We get requests for information a lot from governments all over the world, including the U.S.,” Drummond said.
The company has created what it calls its “global transparency tool” to let users see how many requests for information about users are coming from which governments. The United States is “right up there,” he said, contending the issue “is not trivial.” Google wants to be transparent about its efforts to protect users’ privacy, so it launched the special tool.
“An important part of holding governments accountable is holding us accountable,” Drummond said. “My goal here is to tell the world about every request we get.”
Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson labeled Google the “vanguard for the free flow of information” during his interview of Drummond. But playing devil’s advocate, Isaacson asked if there are cases where divulging information is in the greater good of the country than defending privacy rights, such as when users are learning about making bombs for terrorist attacks.
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Drummond said the U.S. government can obtain information critical for security; it just needs to follow proper legal channels. Google challenged one U.S. government query on grounds that it was too broad-based. The company prevailed in court.
Equally troubling to Drummond are increasing efforts by government to restrict the free flow of information. Google feels the world benefits from greater access to information. Not all governments share the view.
“The future’s not that rosy from an Internet freedom standpoint,” he said. “We’re very, very concerned about more and more governments restricting [information]. It’s not just China. This is a much broader problem.”
More than 20 countries have restricted YouTube videos. Australia passed a law clearing a path for the government to create a blacklist of websites and forcing Internet service providers to remove the sites. Russia is working on a law to require providers to remove websites that “undermine the authority of state officials.”
Just as Google is resisting government requests for information about users, it is fighting to maintain a free flow of information. In March it decided to stop self-censoring search results in China by automatically redirecting queries to its uncensored service in Hong Kong. Google riled free-speech advocates by later compromising and requiring users to go to the Hong Kong service with a click rather than automatically.
Isaacson said tyrannical governments always view censorship as necessary to keep power. Google is inevitably going to be a transforming force because “it favors freedom and the free flow of information,” he said.
So Google vows to protect its users from government scrutiny, but will it protect its users from its own capitalistic appetite? The company is constantly looking for ways to learn more about its users in an effort to provide them with more relevant information and targeted advertisements. But a lot of that information collection is and will remain voluntary, he said. Users will always retain the option to search the web anonymously through Google, Drummond vowed.