Privacy, internet and freedom of speech under Google’s Big Tent


The application of privacy laws on the Internet has sparked a heated debate between the media and regulators in the UK. While every day new details emerge from the News of the World phone hacking scandal, on 20 May a report by top judges called for a change in the use of ‘super-injunctions’ – a particular kind of injunction which prevents journalists from publishing information about the applicant. On the same day, the UK high court granted a search order against Twitter because of its online users’ repeated attempts to reveal the identity of a famous footballer hiding behind a privacy injunction. A case that, according to The Guardian, made lord chief justice Lord Judge say that “modern technology was totally out of control”.

Within this scenario, Google’s Big Tent event on privacy laws, internet and freedom of speech could not be more timely. Held on 18 May in Watford (London), the all-day debate saw on the stage several speakers, among which intervened the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and the Executive Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.

Making an ass of the law

Regarding the case of super-injunctions and the spread of online information, the Culture Secretary admitted that the legal system has not caught up with changes in technology and that new media has made an “ass of the law”. This has become particularly clear in relation to the Twitter case, where print media are not allowed to publish information that is currently available online. In replying to an answer from the floor, Hunt doubted that legislation will ever be able to keep up with technological changes, thus the only solution is to make the legal system “as adaptable as possible to changes in technology”.

In his speech, the Culture Secretary also highlighted the main goals for UK internet policies, which he summarised with the slogans “the need for speed” and “must be mobile”. He emphasised the economic benefits related to the entire industry of digital contents and set out the ambitious goal of providing 90% of the country with access to super-fast broadband by 2015. In his vision, the UK must play a leading role in the broadband market by building a “future-proof” network of fibre optics, in order to respond to the massive demand for bandwidth.

Foolish legislation or weak regulation?

A steep increase in online connections, however, means having to handle a huge amount of data, which is presently the most challenging task for search engines like Google, according to its Executive Chairman. At the Big Tent, Schmidt said that Google is working on simplifying privacy terms and conditions and enhancing transparency measures, such as creating a Google Dashboard where users can check what personal data the search engine has been using. He added that Google policy considers users as owners of their personal data and, in the case of opting out, “you should be able to delete the data”.

This, however, does not imply that managing personal data is not vital for Google. As Schmidt told the attendees, “if you share information with us, we can do a better job”, such as delivering targeted research. In this struggle between users’ consent and law obligations, he openly disapproved of recent European attempts to enforce regulation on data protection. Asked about a new French law which requires companies to keep their customers’ personal data for a year, he defined it as a “foolish” measure, because it would prevent Google from being able to operate.

From a completely different viewpoint, privacy laws were also criticised by the Director of Privacy International, Simon Davies. While he contested the companies’ claim that privacy measures stifle innovation – he asked the audience to provide an example for this claim, but no one was able to respond – he argued that the real problem is the role of regulators who “don’t enforce the rules we have now”. By blaming the inconsistent role of the three UK regulators – the Information Commissioner, Ofcom, and the Office of Fair Trading – Davies claimed that when “information changes from paper to digital the laws tend to adapt to meet changed conditions”. This always brings back the same underlying problem: the powerful role of technological innovations, which, according to him, are able to “subvert our laws”.

Controlling freedom of speech, controlling the doorway

The discussion on privacy naturally led to addressing the problem of limiting freedom of speech. In the afternoon panel, Google’s Chief Legal Officer, David Drummond, underlined the search giant’s difficulties in complying with different local laws – as an example, he provided a recent Italian case where he and two other executives were charged with privacy violation over a Youtube video showing a disabled child who was being bullied. “We must be very careful in applying limitations” on the internet, he added, because “the more limitations in the Western world, the more other countries will look at it”. In this sense, a clear example was non-democratic countries’ reactions to US attempts to block Wikileaks.

Yet, Drummond emphasised the fact that even if a website is removed from Google’s search results, it does not mean that it disappears. He often seemed to suggest that Google is simply a collection of links, which does not affect internet content. This claim, however, is far from uncontroversial, and could lead to an entire new debate about the so-called ‘search neutrality’ and Google’s key role as a doorway between users and internet contents. Here it is simply worth mentioning what Simon Davies himself told the BBC recently: “The organisation that controls that doorway controls everything”. But clearly you would not expect to touch upon this burning issue in the Google’s Big Tent.

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  1. The article reports David Drummond as saying
    “David Drummond, underlined the search giant’s difficulties in complying with different local laws – as an example, he provided a recent Italian case where he and two other executives were charged with privacy violation over a Youtube video ”
    If Mr Drummond really said this, then I am left speachless: the video were loaded on Google Video, so he’d better clean up his act. And if he cannot manage his legal structure in a way that his company can comply with the law, he should stop being a lawyer and sell ice creams instead!

  2. Brilliant summary and clear outlines. I definitely agree that the Internet and those emerging online applications are really changing our lives and the function of social system rather than simply adapting our lives into a digital one.
    I pretty much like your viewpoint in the last part to point out the contradiction of Google’s logic. Although I would think that the Big Tent is Google’s PR to some extent, it is really great to have different people and perspectives to crash into each other as an open discussion.
    It is never simple to clearify different players’ role and responsibilities in this new game.

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