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CIRC09 – The Global Network Initiative

(I’m at the 7th China Internet Research Conference at the Annenberg School of Communications. Information on participating is here.)

The second session at the China Internet Research conference is a roundtable on the Global Network Initiative, an association of academic institutions, corporations and nonprofit institutions working on a set of best practices for corporations to follow in engaging with governments on online freedom of expression issues. Hosted by my colleague Rebecca MacKinnon, the round table includes Colin Maclay from the Berkman Center, Leslie Harris from the Center for Democracy and Technology, Bob Boorstin representing Google, internet entrepreneur Isaac Mao, and Ang Pen Hwa from Nanyang Technical University.

Rebecca explains that the GNI is a result, in part, of hearings in US Congress about actions by US corporations in China, emerging in part in reaction to Yahoo’s role in the arrest of Chinese journalist Shi Tao. Corporations wanted advice on best practices working in nations that don’t respect rights of free speech, and NGOs wanted to ensure that companies worked to protect human rights. This created a sense of common interest, which has allowed the companies to meet on common ground and discuss strategies.

Boorstin acknowledges that being the representative of a large US corporation at a Chinese internet conference can be “like being the fire hydrant at a dog show”. He explains that Google has much less leverage in China than most people think – if Google threatened to leave, he says, “The Chinese government would say, ‘Bye bye'”. Their market share is small compared to Baidu’s – 22% versus 70% market share – and Boorstin argues that they’ve got less influence than larger Chinese companies would have.

Without disagreeing with him, Isaac Mao points out that his open letter to Google (published over two years ago, and never responded to by Google…) was directed because Google has such a strong reputation for being socially progressive – he hoped Google would choose to do the right thing and engage in China in a way that explicitly promoted freedom of expression.

Ang suggests that GNI not try to get the US first ammendment adopted around the world. Instead, it’s important to celebrate a best practice – immunizing a provider from third-party liability. In other words, individuals are responsible for their speech, not companies. Without this limitation on liability, it’s virtually impossible to run book reviews on Amazon or maintain a site like Trip Advisor. It’s not unreasonable, he argues, to expect regulation of offline media to creep into regulation of online media, but this single principle makes a great deal of free expression possible. Colin Maclay questions whether we want to regulate the internet like media, or like free expression, pointing out that online expression is very different from traditional media: it’s cheap, unlicensed, and yet still persistent, having an impact even after a takedown order.

Leslie Harris responds to criticism that the GNI doesn’t include small companies or non-US companies – it’s based primarily around Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. “When we started, we wondered whether we could get these three companies to sit in a room together… and the answer was initially ‘no’.” In other words, it’s required a great deal of work to get as far as the initiative has gone so far – we may need to be patient in expecting the group to extend any time soon.

Rebecca calls on Michael Anti, reminding us that his blog, hosted on Microsoft’s MSN Spaces (now Windows Live) was censored in 2005, not by China but by the company. He offers the observation that Chinese users are offering “a quiet acceptance of some compromise – without some compromise, we know we’ll lose these key services.” But he suggests that these companies formalize a bargain with their Chinese users: “We want companies to udnerstand that when they do business in China, it’s exchange – we exchange part of our freedom to support you. You should have some special group to help civil society as an exchange for us ignoring your compromise with the government.”

Harris fields a question about whether the US Congress has a seat at the table of GNI. “They’re at the table, but not as a welcome guest,” she quips. While Congress isn’t represented at the table, pressure from congressional committees helped bring participants to the table, and it might require EU pressure for European companies to participate as well.

In response to a question about whether GNI serves as a “fig leaf” for corporations, Boorstin points out that Google added a notice at the bottom of their Chinese search results making clear that filtering is taking place – other engines have caught up and provided a similar notice. “What’s under the figleaf: pretty much the three Ts, and one F – there’s more than that, but I think most Chinese users know what material they can’t get.” (That would be Tibet, Taiwan, Tienenman and Falun Gong, for those not following the Chinese internet closely…)

Isaac Mao and Ang Pen Hwa field a question about setting up an initiative like the GFI in Asia, with Asian stakeholders. Isaac believes GNI could be localized to Asia, because there’s a “cultural history of controlling culture” which leads to attempts to control the internet too closely. This, in turn, means that Asian companies are facing the sorts of pressures that brought US governments to the GFI table. Ang tells us he’s hoping to set up a “committee of internet experts” – “it’ll be like the EFF, but you can’t use the word ‘Freedom’ in Singapore without being misunderstood.” Support for the initiative is more likely to come from small businesses and academia in Singapore, he believes, not from civil society.