Giants of the Internet: What Roles and Responsibilities?

Liveblogged at #gv2012 with link help from Nathan Matias. Please leave any corrections in the comments.

Daudi Were quotes a famous proverb, which says, “When elephants fight, the grass suffer. When elephants agree, the grass gets eaten.” With that introduction, our moderator Ivan Sigal, notes that corporations run a large portion of our digital publics. They are the venue for much of our civic discourse, and yet they are functionally private entities. The power they exert is mediated through code, business, management practices, and engineering practices. Given their importance to our discourse, how do we engage with them? And how do they engage with us?

#GV2012 citizen Media Summit 2012
Photo by @LauraSchne

Our first speaker is Ramzi Jaber from ( and Visualizing Palestine. He’s an activist living in ? and recognizes that the narrative is not necessarily what’s happening on the ground. Social media are increasingly used for social movements. If these networks are utilities, as Danah Boyd and Mark Zuckerberg have posited, should not they be regulated as water and electricity utilities are in many places?

Protesters have seen their content taken down from social media sites like Flickr and YouTube not by repressive governments, but by the platforms themselves. We don’t have data to discover when this happens; we find out through blogs and personal contacts. launched yesterday to crowdsource monitoring of all acts of censorship and externally audit the gatekeepers of our speech online.

Our next speaker, Max Schrems, runs the blog , creator of Europe vs. Facebook, and who has detailed Facebook’s practices and policies against its users. A Facebook employee visited his class in California and made claims about Facebook's uses of data in Europe which were incompatible with European law. When he took advantage of EU rights and requested his personal data, he received 1,222 pages of personal data, including deleted data they shouldn’t have anymore, including private messages. Under European law, much of this data is actually illegal for them to hold. The project was an attempt to see if the law would be enforced against Facebook. It was not. The rights we have on paper do not translate to rights in action. The same goes for censorship and other issues. A problem with democracies is that we have written law and regulation, but powerful companies can often get away with ignoring these rules. A wrinkle of that is that many web companies are based in the US, but reach the entire world. Of course, if you hope to make money in other markets, you must respect the local law.

Bob Boorstin, director of Corporate and Policy Communications for Google and former New York Times reporter, begins with three numbers:
0: the number of goals his team, Italy, scored last night.
0: the number of women on this panel, which is not OK.
1,222: the number of pages of data Facebook has on Max. “They’re not doing a very good job,” he jokes.

Any discussion about corporations must begin with governments around the world, Bob says. These governments are putting corporations into the position of forced compliance. And it’s not just the usual bad guys like China and Vietnam. It’s many of the governments around the world. Bob sees protection of the users as the primary corporate responsibility. Failure to do so fails the customer, puts them at risk, and causes a loss of trust, which translates to a loss of business. The main areas of corporate responsibility:

    • Maximize free expression and access to information on the internet. ‘Maximize’ here only includes free expression that should be seen; child pornography is an exception (although, Bob notes, it is often used as an excuse to clamp down on legitimate expression).
    • Responsibility to be advocates on these issues, rather than passive witnesses.
    • Corporations should lobby, work together with human rights groups and others against governments that are filtering content and blocking access. The Global Network Initiative brings together people all over the spectrum to increase leverage.

Two of Google’s efforts in this department:

      • Google has developed a Transparency Report to show what’s being blocked, and how much information each government is asking for about its users. Google believes in transparency and is pushing other companies and governments to take it seriously.
      • Data Liberation Front: Google has an entire division dedicated to allowing users to take their data and bring it with them elsewhere.

Bob argues that corporate social responsibility and human rights should NOT be siloed into a glossy annual report. These activities should be folded into everyday activities across the corporation.

Ivan notes that in areas where laws do regulate the Internet, it’s up to the civic mechanisms we already have in place to enforce that law. At the same time, there are vulnerable people living in places where the government does not represent the user and does not provide rights. How do we accommodate a global structure flexible enough to contain these two polarities?

Max counters Bob’s point about trust, saying that Facebook has a de facto monopoly, and as a result, users’ lack of trust does not actually translate to lost business.

We discuss why there are no women on the panel. A female panelist from Yahoo! had to drop out last minute due to medical reasons, and Rebecca was already on or organizing several other panels.

Ramzi states the business reality of censorship: it’s much cheaper to remove potentially offensive content than to pay a human to look into the situation. Blanket bans are easier to implement than nuanced policies. And flagging mechanisms are increasingly gamed by users to remove legitimate content they disagree with (e.g. Digg Patriots).

Bob corrects a statement that was made about Google’s privacy policies. They recently collapsed the number of policies across their products from 70 to 10 to benefit users. He admits the policies aren’t as accessible as they need to be. But he again points to governments forcing Google to follow local law. There are variations in policy by nation that begin to involve piracy. Thailand has a law prohibiting insults against the king. Germany has extremely strict neo-Nazi laws that Google must comply with. We hear all the time that the internet is borderless, but Bob says it most definitely is not. Crossing borders brings you into a new jurisdiction, where your policy could result in you losing your license to conduct business.

Bob addresses the point about Facebook being a monopoly: monopolies don’t last. Google’s supposed monopoly has been broken by Facebook, with users going there before Google. In China, Japan, and Russia, local search engines beat Google in market share. He has faith that technology will change and people will move on to new services, preventing any long-term monopolies. He also takes issue with the argument that companies don’t do enough to provide services in oppressive products and services in places like Iran. Google has lobbied to offer services to citizens in Syria and Iran, and has launched there in the past year.

Several years ago, Google received a takedown showing people being beaten in an Egyptian jail. They took the video down three consecutive times, reaching their three-strike law, and took down the channel. The dissident in control of the channel reached Google through the State Department and explained the importance of the video, and Google agreed to restore the channel. The agreement reached a compromise asking users to include more information to explain the purpose of the video, as well as an interstitial statement warning the viewer about the violent content.

Max points out that the problem is that automated mechanisms are deleting speech, and as a user, you have no option to reach a human being. He has the cellphone number of a Facebook executive, where he can threaten to go to the press, and his content gets restored within an hour. Everyone else does not have this kind of line to these companies.

Ramzi acknowledges the huge ratio of users to employees on sites with user-generated content, and that automated reporting mechanisms aren’t perfect. Seventy hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. They can’t figure out how to screen all of this content before it goes live, and don’t want to dedicate the resources that would require.

Ramzi also asked Bob about how companies are included in the Transparency Report, noting that Israel is not included. Bob isn’t sure, but thinks they only report on documented requests for information.

Dave Parry, a professor at the University of Texas, asks Bob, if Google has rights and responsibilities, what are Google’s rights, and what can we, the public, do to Google if they don’t abide by these rights?

Bob replies that as a corporation, Google has the right to provide goods and services to people. Google provides free services that are frequently better than alternatives, with the tradeoff being that you offer Google your personal data in exchange. (It’s refreshing to hear the Google tradeoff explained in such clear terms.)

Bob defines rights for people, and unlike certain US presidential candidates, doesn’t believe corporations are people. The individual has the right to do whatever they want, under the law, to protest against wrongs. That range of activities could include boycotting Google, or pursuing enforcement through any avenue of government, be it Congress or the Federal Trade Commission. In the SOPA/PIPA battle in the US, corporations and consumers found common ground to defend themselves against really bad bills that targeted free expression.

Max takes issue with the “take it or leave it” defense. And someone working at a huge corporation expressed confidence to him that a certain regulation would not go through specifically because of the vast amount that corporation dumped into political lobbying against it. So, asking citizens to pursue government regulation of these giants is a little silly.

Ory Okolloh, the first African editor for Global Voices, now at Google, is in the room! There is a concern, she says, that many African governments do not adequately protect citizens’ rights. Google hosted a conference to share tools and ways that citizen and professional journalists alike could protect themselves while expressing themselves online. She wishes there were more research in this area, and points to ResearchICT Africa as a group they are supporting.

Jillian York has her critiques of Google, but gives them credit for being here, talking with us, and listening to us. Facebook, on the other hand, goes to every government conference, and declined to come here. The slogan of Global Voices is, “The world is talking, are you listening?” How can we make any change within these companies if they are not here to listen?

Max talks to Facebook employees informally, but says that whenever a public panel comes up on an issue like this one, their PR department works by ignoring invitations to attend.

Bob warns us that Google will inevitably make mistakes in the future, and asks us to hold them accountable when they do. He tells us to cut Facebook some slack, as they’re new at all of this. Facebook joined the Global Initiative as an observer. In the ICT sector, different companies come from different backgrounds. Telecoms were, in general, public utilities that were later privatized. Their first reaction, when handed a request by the government, is “When do you want it?” That historical artifact is hard to break. Google’s first reaction, on the other hand, is “Why do you want it?”, and asks governments to justify requests before handing citizens’ data over.

Does working with activists and listening to communities mean less profit? Ramzi believes that if you take a long-term view, it’s more profitable to care. The culture in Palo Alto is one of trying things quickly and lean startups, and education must take place. Max agrees, that there are various teams at a company like Facebook, and the data privacy team might not have the power or access to management to do what they know is the right thing.

Rebecca MacKinnon points out that Max and Ramzi are working on projects to channel citizen demand towards these private companies. How do we direct these companies’ attention to problems in a productive way?

Ramzi again points us to, as it spans Google+, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Max says we need to make a distinction between feedback and improving product, and basic human rights. These companies come to these panels and ask for forgiveness rather than permission. But if you breach the law, it’s not the responsibility of NGOs to come and explain what you did wrong. It’s your responsibility to retain a lawyer and not break the law in the first place.

Ory points out that a critical issue in Africa is that of mobiles and the telcos that censor and track them. The power relationships telcos have with governments are troubling. Bob points to the Mobile Monitor, which is still in alpha, but does attempt to catalog mobile regulations all in one place.

In closing, Ramzi underscores the value of personal connections and knowing people like Rebecca, Jillian, and the rest of Global Voices.

Bob would like to end on an optimistic note: You can sometimes accomplish a lot by cooperating with people who, at first glance, may not appear to be on your side.

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