Iarla Flynn on Press Freedom in Southeast Asia


IARLA FLYNN: Hi there. My name is Iarla Flynn. I’m a senior manager with the
Public Policy team for Google in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s wonderful to be speaking
at the conference. I want to thank the Southeast
Asian Press Alliance for the opportunity to take part. Around the world, we are in the
middle of a fundamental debate about the openness and
the nature of the internet. And right now, Thailand is in
the middle of that debate, so it’s really timely. And thanks again to
the organizers for putting it together. At Google, our mission is
to organize the world’s information and make
it universally accessible and useful. And that means that we have a
deep commitment to the open internet and to making
information available to people around the world. So we’re really interested in
this conference and what’s going on in Thailand. In my comments over the next few
minutes, I want to touch on three areas. Firstly, I want to talk about
the internet and what makes it special as a communications
platform. I want to talk about some of the
threats to the openness of the internet, and finally, to
talk a bit about the approach that we take at Google. So let me start with
the internet. The internet was designed
to be an open platform. So today we’ve got a
platform that is open, global, and dynamic. These characteristics have
contributed very, very much to the explosive growth
of the internet. Today there are more than 2
billion people connected to the internet around the world,
and 850 million of those are in the Asia-Pacific
region, and it’s growing very, very rapidly. In the online world, anybody
can publish an opinion or a view, and anybody else can
access that and respond to it and consider it. And people around the world are
taking advantage of these opportunities, the opportunity
that the internet provides to leap borders, to challenge
conventions, and to allow for debate on subjects as diverse
as eggs and education. Now obviously, this environment
creates a proliferation of opinions, some
of which we would all agree with, some of which we may
disagree with, and some, in fact, we may find
objectionable. And certainly, that dynamic
creates a challenge for governments around the world
that have been used to controlling traditional print
and television media. Now, unfortunately, we’re seeing
a new trend globally where more and more governments
are censoring content on the internet and
also erecting legal and regulatory barriers to the
free flow of information. Figures from the OpenNet
Initiative show that in 2002, there were four governments
around the world which censored the internet. But in recent years, that number
has gone above 40. So that’s a very
worrying trend. And just in recent weeks, we’ve
seen media reports of disruption to internet services
in countries like Egypt, Syria, and the Sudan. So indeed, these are
worrying trends. Our own experience at
Google certainly reflects these trends. Our products have been blocked
in more than 25 countries around the world. YouTube, for example, has been
blocked in 13 countries, or perhaps more. And YouTube is blocked
today in China, Iran, and North Korea. Many of the government
restrictions that we see strike at the very heart
of the open internet. But more broadly, they also
violate Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, which says that everyone has the right to
freedom of opinion and expression. And that includes freedom to
access information through any medium, regardless
of frontiers. So in this current global
landscape at Google, we’re very focused on staying true to
our principles and beliefs. And they are about openness
and preserving access to information, while at the same
time, operating in accordance with local laws and cultural
norms in the different countries where we operate. Our approach is always
evolving. Sometimes we have difficult
judgment calls to make. But we rely on a number of key
principles to inform our decisions that we make
in terms of content. Number one, we have a bias in
favor of people’s right to free expression. We also strongly believe that
more information means more choice, more freedom, and
ultimately, more power for the individual. Those are fundamental principles
that we operate by everyday in Google. Now it would be no surprise that
companies like Google and other intermediaries and service
providers in the international telecoms world
regularly receive demands from governments, both to remove
content from our services and also to provide user content. Such requests, when we get them,
will be very closely checked by our expert legal
teams to verify that they meet both the letter and the spirit
of the relevant legislation. Where we do have to agree to
these requests, and in most cases, they are entirely
legitimate and valid requests, before we do agree with them,
we make an effort to be as transparent as possible
with our users. So, for example, we will try
to notify users where a request impacts on their own
particular information. And where we remove content from
our search results, we will display a message in the
search results to let our users know what’s actually
happened. Last year in October, we
launched an interactive online transparency report. This shows on a visual basis,
on a map of the world, the numbers of requests we get in
different countries for, number one, removal of content
from our services, and number two, request for access
to user data. We’ve also recently added
features which allow users to see where Google services
are actually being blocked or inhibited. And so, for example, following
the recent situation in Egypt, we reduced the time delay on
that feature from about 42 hours to about two hours. That effectively means that
internet users around the world can see, almost in real
time, where Google services are being disrupted. So we think that’s an important
contribution to transparency. We absolutely recognize that
access to information on the internet or anywhere else can’t
be, and shouldn’t be, without limits. So, for example, at Google we’ve
an all-products ban on child sexual abuse material. We think that has no place on
the internet or anywhere else, and we have a global ban on
that kind of material. But some of the legal
restrictions that we see are going much, much broader than
that and hold out a risk of stifling discussion and
access to information in the online world. I want to take one example. Last year in Indonesia a
defamation law, for example, was used to block
free expression. The cases of Prita Mulyasara– and I’m sure you’re familiar
with that case. A mother of two, Prita, sent an
email to some friends and family complaining
about the poor service of a local hospital. Somehow this information got
out into the public. The hospital sued Prita under
Indonesia’s defamation laws. And she was sent to jail, and
a very heavy fine was imposed upon her. But thankfully, the online
community in Indonesia joined forces and set out to protect
Prita’s right to express her views on a legitimate issue. The campaign, very thankfully,
was successful. Prita was freed from prison, and
the fine was overturned. So a really good outcome there
and a success for the online community in Indonesia. And that brings us to Thailand
where the debate, as I said at the start, is very much current and very, very important. We must not allow freedom of
expression on the internet to be limited by over-rigorous
interpretations concerning where the responsibility of
online intermediaries and service providers
starts and ends. Or to put it another way, don’t
shoot the messenger in the online world. Khun Jiranut’s trial is
obviously very topical. And we have heard, to our
concern, that the government believes that intermediaries
in the internet world are guilty of a crime the moment
content, which is subsequently found to be unlawful,
is actually uploaded to those sites. And that seems to be the case,
that view seems to hold, whether the material was later
removed or blocked. That’s a troubling
interpretation, in our view, of the law. It attacks the very principles
on which the internet is built. If this principle and this view
was carried out, it would require monitoring of every
comment on a website, every posting on a blog,
and indeed, every video uploaded to YouTube. And it’s worth noting in that
context that there are 35 hours of video uploaded to
YouTube every single minute of the day. And that’s just one website
out of the over 1 trillion that make up the internet
together. So I think it’s clear that
pre-screening of all the material uploaded by users to
the internet is simply a practical impossibility. But I think more importantly,
the principle of making intermediaries and service
providers responsible strikes at the very openness that
makes the internet work. If sites like Prachatai and
YouTube are responsible for every piece of content that’s
uploaded, the risk is that the web, as we know it, could cease
to exist. And all the economic and social benefits
that come to people could also be in danger. Now, I think it’s very important
to note in the context of the current public
debate in Thailand that the vigor of the debate is a
testament both to Thailand’s democracy and its vigorous
civil society. It must be noted there are many
other countries in Asia where such a debate simply
could not take place. But I think the good news for
all of us, individuals, people in industry, government, and
other interested stakeholders in the internet, is that we can
work together to uphold the rights of freedom of
expression and access to information in the
online world. The challenge I think, for those
of us who care about the open internet and facilitating
that access to information, is to get governments to embrace
the potential of the internet and to ensure that governments
understand the potential of the internet to improve the
economic and social conditions in their countries. I think with a sustained effort
in the coming years, that is the challenge that
we can all meet together. So in conclusion, I want to
thank you very much for the opportunity to appear at
this important event. For our part at Google, we will
continue to work with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance,
the Thai Netizens, and indeed, everybody who shares
the goal of preserving the openness of the internet
in Thailand, in Asia, and indeed, around the world. So thank you very much again.

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