Internet free speech isn't an insular issue
Lance Lattig: Google is seeking allies in Europe for its free expression initiative, but where will that leave the Tories?
13 Oct 09

For Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies, finding the Next Big Thing is what matters most. When a Google executive came to London on 12 October, he delivered a speech at an apt venue: Policy Exchange, the favourite think thank of the party tipped to form Britain’s next government.

David Drummond, the 46-year-old American lawyer who serves as Google’s chief legal advisor, spoke about the ways in which Google has tried to ensure unfettered internet access by users worldwide.

But Google has also complied with requests from China and other countries to block websites, a practice seemingly at odds with its corporate motto, “Do no harm.” Drummond argued that criticism of Google’s policy in these areas has overlooked the larger global issue: increasingly repressive internet legislation in many of the 150 countries where the company operates.

Countries around the world already have an obligation to ensure free expression under existing human rights treaties, Drummond said. So ensuring free expression on the internet is ultimately the responsibility of governments, both at home and in its foreign relations..

But how would Google’s appeal for government action square with the party line of Drummond’s hosts? At the recent Tory party conference, David Cameron asserted that government is not the solution — a rerun of the Reaganite slogan first heard in Drummond’s country some 30 years ago. As for ensuring international human rights, the Tories are instead aiming to repeal the UK Human Rights Act.

To ensure free expression on the internet worldwide, Google has turned to the area of trade agreements. The company is lobbying governments to build internet free expression provisions into trade pacts. The US Congress is currently considering a bill on internet restrictions in countries like China, which also result in unfair trade advantages for domestic companies that block access. “Censorship is a type of trade barrier,” Drummond said.

Countries like the US and UK, Drummond emphasized, have a long tradition of free expression. Now they need to entrench these principles into trade agreements. Free expression on the internet is a human rights issue. But internet access is also a business issue, he said, since it concerns trade in services.

Drummond said the US and UK governments need to take action through trade agreements. There’s a key difference here: the US is a trade bloc, the UK isn’t. Britain’s ability to enshrine free expression clauses in trade agreements depends on its effectiveness within the world’s largest trade bloc, the EU.

As the Google executive headed off to give speeches in Paris and Frankfurt, the Tories remained focused on Riga and Jedwabne. If Britain’s likely government opts for a marginal position in Europe, it will lose more than what the Obama administration considers its prime value. Instead, the UK should take a lead in Europe — and ensure that EU trade agreements guarantee free expression on the internet.