As I reported yesterday, a British parliamentary committee is gunning for Google, Twitter and Facebook, and asking them to filter their services to comply with court orders intended to protect individuals’ privacy. But now the web services are starting to push back.
The furore started when Ryan Giggs, a famous sports star, got a court order to stop the press from publishing details of an affair he’d been having, but ended up with his identity spread far and wide online anyway. The subsequent parliamentary investigation into British privacy laws heard major web services argue that they would rather not implement privacy screening.
But with the committee’s final report calling those arguments “totally unconvincing”, Google and Twitter have come out fighting.
“Requiring search engines to screen the content of their web pages would be like asking phone companies to listen in on every call made across their networks for potentially suspicious activity,” Google said on Tuesday. “Google already remove specific pages deemed unlawful by the courts. We have a number of simple tools anyone can use to report such content, which we then remove from our index.”
Twitter responded in a similar way, suggesting that it would continue to operate as normal, evaluating requests on a case-by-case basis.
It’s a tricky topic on all sorts of levels, not least as a culture clash between American and European ideals.
But really, do Google and Twitter have a leg to stand on?
Censorship already happens
The big problem here is that these services already censor.
Google, for example, makes sure that a regular stream of child pornography sites are delisted from the index, and the service is compliant with laws in Germany and France that led to the removal of more than 100 Neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic and Islamist sites in those countries. It filters its autocomplete listings so that no torrent-related searches come up, and it also allows the owners of music videos and films to take down copies on YouTube via its Content Identification service. And, infamously, Google censored its Chinese search engine results until it decided it was no longer viable.
Twitter, too, came out earlier this year and said it would censor messages in specific countries if required to do so by law. That drew criticism from free speech advocates, but some praise from others who saw it as a graduated response rather than overkill at the top.
So both services already censor.
Sure, there may be technical differences here between what they do and what UK parliamentarians are asking for: most censorship right now is either broad and early — sweeping categories that make it more difficult for people to certain categories of information — or they are specific, limited and done post-publication.
What the British committee seems to be asking for is something in between.
Whether it would succeed or not is another question, and one I think should be properly addressed. There are always other services, other channels, other avenues for information to spread.
But the central problem here is that Google and Twitter have already shown that there are few reasons — barring expense — that these companies could or should not comply with the report. Indeed, in her testimony to the committee, Google’s associate general counsel Daphne Keller said it was a question of agency, not feasibility:
“I don’t dispute that someone could perhaps build something,” Keller conceded. “My policy point is that doing so is a bad idea. Ultimately, the decision about whether something is unlawful is something for a human to make.”
What Keller seemed to ignore is that — while we all have choices about our own actions — it is also humans who make the law, and humans who make web services.
In this case, censorship may be impossible to resist.