On Monday, The Telegraph reported on Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s talk at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival. In it, he chastised censorious governments, saying completely effective internet censorship was unattainable and governments trying to do so were doomed to fail.
Schmidt’s comments neatly skirt Google’s complicity with governments’ censorship by claiming that they warn governments that internet censorship can fail, and says that “if [the governments] don’t listen to us it is at their peril.” As we’ve seen in Iran, government clamp-downs on internet communications can fail insofar as they don’t manage to completely suppress all voices. But it is a weak argument that in such attempts at censorship, the companies providing technological systems (that fail to completely censor voices) hold no responsibility.
Governments around the world, even democratically elected, have difficulty with [the flow of] information online. Dictatorships and closed communities one after the other will try and shut down communication from inside. Strategies governments use trying to shut down people’s speech are terrible strategies and will not succeed. … The internet is the strongest force for individual self-expression ever invented.
Google, among other companies, has set up structures to support government censorship. As Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo notes, “It is not our job to fix the Chinese government.” I agree. But it is sort of spectacularly, willfully oblique to simultaneously condemn the Chinese government, support government censorship, deny responsibility for censorship, and most spectacularly, in Google’s's case, criticize the efficacy of government-imposed censorship.
That internet censorship cannot be complete, and that such strategies are “terrible” and doomed, does not alleviate the complicity of companies and governments trying to tamp down free expression. Certainly governments, but also to a very large extent Google and other internet platforms, bear responsibility for not only maintaining the internet as a space for uncensored expression, but upholding principles of net neutrality, access, and free expression in the face of censorious individuals, movements, organizations, and regimes.