At an event to mark the release of Freedom House’s report on Internet freedom today, a Syrian human rights activist briefly took Google to task for not doing enough to help citizens in his home country.
Mohammed Alabdullah, one of four international experts on a panel hosted at Google’s Washington DC offices, said that while Google assisted the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring, it has done nothing in Syria, where President Assad’s crackdown on anti-government demonstrations have escalated into an armed conflict.
“I was very happy to see Google helping in Egypt,” said Alabdullah, who is a project director for civil society advocacy group IREX. “We did not get anybody’s support in Syria. Nobody. Google, Facebook, nobody.”
In response, Robert Boorstin, Google’s director of public policy, could only mount a weak defense, saying the company has introduced products that can help activists, without specifying which ones. “Our concern remains very high and we are pushing when we can to make sure that tools are available for different citizens around the world,” Boorstin said.
Boorstin was put in another uncomfortable position when a journalist in the audience asked why Google removed the movie trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” from YouTube in Egypt and Libya but not anywhere else. The video incited riots across the Arab world, but most prominently in Egypt, where protesters attacked the US Embassy in Cairo, and in Libya, where they appear to have precipitated attacks against the US Consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three State Department staff.
Boorstin replied that handling such controversial content is one of the hardest things Google has to deal with and that its default position is to support freedom of expression. However, Google does take down content in response to government requests that are legitimate and legal, he said. “In this case, we temporarily removed the video in Egypt and Libya because of the very sensitive situation that had developed.”
The journalist pushed further, asking bluntly why the video wasn’t removed in Tunisia or Pakistan, where protests against US embassies also took place. Boorstin dismissed the question by saying “I’m not going to get into internal discussions that went on”.
Google is an outspoken supporter of Internet freedom worldwide, as illustrated in its ongoing Transparency Report, which recently revealed that takedown requests from the US government had doubled in the space of six months. In China, it provides a service to show users which search terms are being censored. And it is a partner for Freedom House, which issues the annual “Freedom On the Net” report.
In an interview after the panel, Alabdullah readily conceded that Google doesn’t have a responsibility to pay special attention to Syria, because it is a for-profit company and not a government organization. International sanctions on Syria make the job only more difficult, he said. “We were blaming them publicly, putting some pressure on them,” Alabdullah said with a wry smile.
Meanwhile, Freedom House has reported that an increasing number of governments are trying to limit free speech online, and that Internet freedom is worsening across the globe. Just yesterday, Iran announced it would start blocking Gmail and Google Search, ostensibly in the name of cybersecurity.
“More countries have registered declines than improvements, so the threats are getting bigger,” said Sanja Kelly, Freedom House’s project director for the report, ahead of the panel session.
One of the worrying trends regarding Internet controls is that governments have moved beyond simple censorship. In 14 of the 47 countries the report looked at, governments had enlisted so-called “50-cent armies” to spread propaganda and misinformation online. There have also been sharp increases in hijackings of personal accounts, and physical attacks on netizens. In 19 countries, at least one netizen had been tortured, disappeared, beaten, or brutally assaulted because of their online activities in the past year, said Kelly.
The worst countries for Internet freedom in 2012 are Iran, Cuba, China, Syria, Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Burma, and Vietnam, according to the report. The organization also expressed concern about steep declines in Bahrain, Pakistan, and Egypt. The countries that enjoy the most Internet freedom are Estonia, the US, Germany, Australia, Hungary, Italy, the Philippines, and the UK.