1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Freedom frontiers

Interview: Helen Whittle
September 19, 2012

In an interview with DW, Eva Galperin from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that Google's "pro-active" approach to the censorship of the controversial "Innocence of Muslims" video sets a dangerous precedent.

Tunisian protesters burn the U.S. flag during a demonstration outside the U.S. embassy in Tunis September 12, 2012. Tunisian police fired teargas and rubber bullets into the air on Wednesday to disperse a protest over a U.S.-made film depicting the Prophet Mohammad near the U.S. Embassy in the capital Tunis, a Reuters reporter said.
Image: Reuters

DW: Do you think the "Innocence of Muslims" video should be banned by Google?

Eva Galperin: I most certainly do not think that the video should be banned, either in the United States or in Egypt and in Libya were Google chose to ban it in spite of the fact that they acknowledged that it was consistent with their terms of service and they had not received any court orders.

Do you believe in free speech at any cost?

I believe in free speech within the limits of US law, which is not completely unadulterated free speech. And furthermore, I do acknowledge that Google does have to obey the law in countries where it receives a valid court order, such as countries where it has offices and is therefore under that country's jurisdiction. I do think that's one of the reasons why Google needs to be extremely circumspect about where they have their offices, because if they want to maintain their devotion to freedom of expression, they need to understand that when they move into other countries where freedom of expression is not as strongly supported, they may have to make these kinds of compromises when they receive court orders in countries like India and possibly Malaysia.

Some critics are calling for a concrete, transnational system of internet governance. Would you approve of such an idea?

Worldwide internet governance is highly problematic. Partially because of the clashes between various countries right to autonomy and their right to decide what kind of content is allowed in each country. But also because the US frequently uses these kinds of worldwide treaties or agreements in order to push through its own intellectual property agenda which can often lead to widespread censorship, which we are very concerned about, which we saw with ACTA [Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement], and also what you saw domestically in the United States their attempt to pass SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act].

Eva Galperin from the Electronic Frontier Foundation
Free speech, but not at any cost: Eva GalperinImage: privat

Do you think Obama's condemnation of the video can be read as an attack on free speech?

No I don't. I think that the White House has been fairly clear in its support of freedom of speech, while at the same time condemning the violence. There is nothing about condemning the violence that necessitates the censorship of this video. I think that by condemning the violence without calling for the censorship of this video, the White House is making it clear that they are putting the blame where it belongs - on the perpetrators of the violence.

In light of the Wikileaks affair and the subsequent treatment of Bradley Manning at the hands of the US government, is it not hypocritical of the current administration to talk about freedom of speech?

The administration's record on its support for freedom of expression is certainly not untarnished. I am perfectly willing to give them kudos on this, in situations where they stand up for freedom of speech. But I think it's also very important to hold them accountable when they don't, such as in the case of Bradley Manning.

Google blocked access to the film in certain countries, you mentioned before, Libya, Indonesia and India, do you think that was the right decision?

I think it's important to distinguish the different reasons why Google blocked the content in different countries. In Libya and Egypt, Google decided to block the video in spite of the fact that it was not in violation of their terms of service and they had not received any kind of court order. The general Google policy on take-downs is not to mediate content. It's usually the case that if you are a YouTube user and you upload a video, so long as you are not violating the terms of service or the law, you can expect that video to stay up. And so for them to take the sort of pro-active approach to censorship is extremely concerning to proponents of freedom of expression and potentially the beginning of a slippery slope.

On the other hand, in countries such as India and Indonesia and in Malaysia, Google was complying with court orders in countries where Google has offices and is therefore under their jurisdiction. And there my criticism of Google is: If you really wanted to stand up for freedom of expression, you should not have opened up offices in these countries and made yourself potentially open to having to be the government's little helper when it comes to censorship.

But is that not also a dangerous shift of power away from governments towards private corporate companies? What are the pitfalls of that?

Well, I think that the existence of the court order and Google's compliance with court orders actually demonstrates the opposite. It demonstrates that countries do still have powers so long as companies like Google have opened up offices in their country and therefore opened themselves up to their jurisdiction.

The places where the government's power is limited are places like Pakistan or Bangladesh where Google does not have offices, they have received court orders and they've simply said you court orders are not valid because we're not under your jurisdiction. And many countries have simply blocked all of YouTube which is extremely disturbing for freedom of expression all over the world, blocking an entire website instead of blocking a video. It's like hitting a fly with a hammer.

A Google screenshot.
Google needs to be more circumspect about where it opens offices, says GalperinImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Can you think of any examples of films you would like to see banned from YouTube, or content you think is inappropriate material?

I think there's plenty of offensive material on YouTube, but so long as it is within the law and it is within YouTube's terms of service, I see no reason to create new policies to in order to censor anything, especially ex post facto.

So do you think that Google has the right to give access to content as long as it is within US law, even though that content can be accessed around the world?

I think, again, it's very important to make this distinction. I think that it is fine for Google to stay within US law because US law has such strong protections for freedom of expression. In other countries Google does block content in response to court orders. Usually stemming from laws that have very different interpretations of freedom of expression, so they do block content that would normally be allowed in the United States. I would hesitate to suggest that Google should defy the law in these countries if they have opened offices in these countries. What I would suggest is that Google really should have thought twice before opening offices in these countries and opening themselves up to becoming tools for limiting freedom of expression in certain states.

But nevertheless, whether they have an office in a particular country or not, the content is still accessible from those countries where US law doesn't apply?

If there's a country that has issued a court order saying take this video down and YouTube takes the video down in that country…

Whether Google has an office there or not…

They will only take it down if they have an office there.

So, Google could only have one office in the USA, but the content is accessible in any country around the world, theoretically, so it is just a question of them not having offices in those countries. So you're saying that access should be available to people in those countries if Google does not have offices in those countries?

If they don't have an office there, that would be the case.

Eva Galperin is an International Freedom of Expression coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a donor-funded nonprofit organization in San Francisco defending free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights. She earned degrees in Political Science and International Relations from San Francisco State University. She previously worked at the US-China Policy Institute.

Skip next section Explore more