Today I came across two excellent pieces touching on the role of intermediaries in censorship/regulation of online speech internationally:
The first is Rebecca MacKinnon's detailed blog post on her research on censorship of Chinese blogs. She looked at Chinese blog-hosting services, including foreign brands offering services inside China, and tried to determine how much variation exists in terms of "what gets censored and how it gets censored." She found remarkable variation between the 15 blog hosts examined:
Of 108 pieces of content on a variety of public affairs and news-related subjects from a variety of sources (ranging from Xinhua to dissident websites), the most censor-happy company deleted over half, while the most laid-back company censored only one.
Based on these findings, MacKinnon concludes that Internet filtering is only part of Chinese Internet censorship, that the Chinese government has outsourced domestic web censorship to the private sector, and that the private sector is carrying out censorship in an inconsistent way, among other things. Her post contains her fantastic presentation slides, which give concrete, visual examples of how the censorship works.
The second is a New York Times Magazine article by Jeffrey Rosen called "Google's Gatekeepers." It looks at three lawyers in Google's highest echelon, who ultimately decide what to do in response to demands by foreign governments (and Sen. Lieberman) to remove objectionable content. As you might imagine, this gives them incredible responsibility (and discretion) for determining what speech stays online. The article is generally optimistic about how Google has handled that responsibility so far, but expresses some understandable anxiety about the future:
Given their clashing and sometimes self-contradictory missions — to obey local laws, repressive or not, and to ensure that information knows no bounds; to do no evil and to be everywhere in a sometimes evil world — Wong and her colleagues at Google seem to be working impressively to put the company’s long-term commitment to free expression above its short-term financial interests. But they won’t be at Google forever, and if history is any guide, they may eventually be replaced with lawyers who are more concerned about corporate profits than about free expression. “We’re at the dawn of a new technology,” Walker told me, referring not simply to Google but also to the many different ways we now interact online. “And when people try to come up with the best metaphors to describe it, all the metaphors run out. We’ve built this spaceship, but we really don’t know where it will take us.”
Besides the important free speech issues, the article raises interesting questions about the professional responsibility of lawyers faced with potentially conflicting imperatives of pursuing their client's best interests and upholding larger ideals of social justice and human rights. It would make an excellent case study for a law school ethics class.