Google and the Ironies of Democracy

Although the Internet is recognized as the best means of boosting innovation and public participation, it is also seen as an immense area prone to paradoxes and ironies.

This week, the most ironic party on the web was the government of Cuba, using its own website to cry foul to Google for cancelling the Google Analytics tool in Cuba, a tool used to measure and analyze visits to a site, and other services including maps, searches, purchases and advertising sales.

The paradox is that the Cuban government called Google’s action “outrageous censorship,” demanding greater freedom for the Internet, despite being one of the greatest censors on the planet. An even more outrageous claim considering Cuba branded independent bloggers, who gathered this week at the “Click Festival” in Havana, as “subversive.” It also blocks online content concurrently and in union with Venezuela, through a fiber optic submarine cable meant to speed up the Internet. This submarine cable seems to only benefit Internet bureaucrats and not citizens as it had promised.

As it is, this happens everywhere. The United States government has the greatest predisposition in the world to encourage democratic processes and more open government via the Internet, social networks and broadband. However, these forums, which are often freely cited by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cannot be used in countries where the U.S. has imposed economic embargoes, such as Cuba, North Korea or Syria.

So while Google shares the vision of the U.S. government that “more information means more freedom and more power to the individual,” as quoted from the Embargo Act dating from 1962, the U.S. does not allow it to offer the same platform and tools that prompted the Arab Spring and other emancipatory movements.

Google should do more to overcome these kinds of laws that go against the promotion of democracy, in the same way that it lobbies to influence regulations of online advertising, taxation and intellectual property, as it did in Washington this year – an activity in which they invested $5 million, well above what was spent by Apple, Facebook and Microsoft combined.

In another twist of irony, the Global Transparency Report that Google filed this week, which every six months measures the requests it receives from governments to censor content, showed that the Internet is prey not only to oppressive governments.

In the second half of 2011, by means of police orders and judicial judgments, 45 countries called for Google to remove videos from YouTube, and to disable blogs and accounts on social networks, mostly because they held content governments described as offensive.

What’s the irony? The U.S. and Brazil were the countries who sought the most censorship orders, which Google called “aberrant” and “alarming” because they are democratic countries which paradoxically do more in favor of having a free and open Internet. The U.S. submitted 187 applications to remove 6,192 content items, 103 percent more than in the first half of 2011, while Brazil had 194 applications for 554 items to be removed. Argentina submitted 39.

Google, which does no censorship of its own, does not comply with all orders. It only obeyed some orders of the U.S. and Brazil. It did not eliminate, for example, a video of a Canadian urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet as requested by the authorities of that country. It also did not comply with requests to delete satirical videos about former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Google did comply with removing dozens of videos against the monarchy in Thailand, others sponsoring terrorism in England, those containing child pornography and more than three million requests to remove content that infringed copyright laws, meeting 97 percent of these requests.

While the report falls short by not disclosing the censorship directly practiced by governments such as Cuba, China or Syria, its importance lies in making the process of censorship transparent, being perhaps the only way to discourage oppressive countries. These ironies show that the Internet, like democracy, is not a perfect medium – and that its perfection depends on the degree of freedom breathed into it.

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