World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

The Potential (and Pitfalls) of Free Expression Technology

The Potential (and Pitfalls) of Free Expression Technology

David C. Drummond joined Google in 2002, initially as Vice President of Corporate Development. Today as Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, he leads Google's global teams for legal, government relations, corporate development and new business development. David Drummond wrote this exclusive article for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers for World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.


Each year, Reporters Without Borders awards a Netizen prize (sponsored by Google) to a blogger, online journalist or cyber-dissident who has helped to promote freedom of expression on the Internet. This year, the gust of freedom sweeping the Arab world made the choice easy. The courageous winners, announced in March, are the Tunisian founders of the independent collective blog  Created in 2004,’s platform for all “committed citizens” played a crucial role in covering the social and political unrest in Tunisia.

As events in the Arab World demonstrate, the Internet has accelerated access to information and the potential to organize people online and then bring them out to the streets. Some 1.6 billion people are online today, and any one of them can publish ideas that can be discovered and consumed by anyone else.  The Internet gives voice to those once silenced. More information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.  In the last six months we've seen the power of these organizing tools -  as well as online maps and Facebook - on the streets from Tunis to Tripoli to Cairo.

Before we celebrate, however, a few words of caution are in order. The Internet isn’t going to magically transform the world into a democratic wonderland. Indeed, the battle for Internet freedom is far from won. The Internet’s very success has reinforced the determination of repressive governments around the world to erect codes and practices that restrict free expression.  Some 40 governments now practice some form of Internet censorship, up from about four in 2002.  And this number is growing.  Reporters Without Borders counts 113 journalists currently detained for expressing their views freely online, mainly in China, Iran and Vietnam.

More and more governments are building firewalls, enforcing codes and cracking down on dissent in order to prevent free expression both online and offline -- and then deal harshly with those who break those rules.  Perhaps even worse, the same technology that gives voice to the once silent also enables tracking and surveillance by governments. As the Iranian regime has dangerously demonstrated, geo-targeting and mobile phones can be used to track and target dissidents.

Obviously, we recognize that freedom of expression can't be - and shouldn't be - without limits. For example, we have a global all-product ban against child pornography, which is illegal in virtually every country. And we also remove spam and results that could expose users to identity theft or malicious software.

Yet Google’s stand is clear: on the side of free expression. We support organizations like the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Reporters Without Borders, Index on Censorship and the Committee to Protect Journalists. In March we awarded $1 million to Georgia Institute of Technology researchers so that they can develop simple tools to detect Internet throttling, government censorship, and other "transparency" problems.  We’ve created an interactive map of Government Requests that shows the number of government inquiries for information about users and requests for Google to take down or censor content.  And our interactive Traffic graphs provide information about traffic to Google services around the world. By illustrating outages, this tool visualizes disruptions in the free flow of information, whether it's a government blocking information or a cable being cut.

Google is helping individuals make their views known. Take the example of Egypt. After the Internet was shut down and Egyptians could not be heard outside their borders, a small team of Googlers worked over a weekend to give people a new tool that enables them to leave voice messages that are posted on Twitter @speak2tweet.

We’re also working hard to make sense of the Internet’s cacophony of voices. We have used YouTube to curate and highlight the most popular and latest videos being uploaded during times of political strife.  For example, we pointed users to videos from Egypt via banners at the top of YouTube pages and aggregated the most up-to-date footage of the protests on CitizenTube, our news and politics channel. Al Jazeera also streamed their broadcasts live in both Arabic and English on their YouTube channels. As thousands of videos of the protests poured in, we tried to help users find what they were looking for, whether unfiltered footage from the demonstrations themselves or news reports from our media partners around the globe.

We all have the responsibility to maintain standards and produce accurate content. We have the responsibility to be as transparent as possible, without compromising the safety of others. But wherever doubt emerges, our bottom line position will be to favor freedom and access to information.

Credit: David Drummond and WAN-IFRA


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