defiant over censorship in China
Google is to enter the political arena in earnest this week when it debates freedom of speech, intellectual property rights and how to connect Africa to the internet at a special UN conference.
The Silicon Valley giant will attempt to position itself as a force for change that can finance web entrepreneurs in the developing world, champion the rights of consumers against 'over-zealous' copy-right laws and use the web to protect diverse minority cultures and languages.
But Google will declare itself unrepentant over the controversial decision to censor its search engine at the behest of Beijing. At the first Internet Governance Forum in Athens, starting tomorrow, the firm will insist its presence in China does more good than harm by getting more information to more people.
That claim was firmly rejected last night by Amnesty International, which is five months into its joint campaign with The Observer, irrepressible.info, which calls for an end to online censorship and the persecution of bloggers.
The forum will be attended by delegations from more than 90 countries, including China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam, all of which have been criticised for curbing freedom of expression on the web. Amnesty will present a petition, signed by more than 47,000 people, demanding an end to such abuses, which in the worst cases have seen people jailed.
A session on openness will feature a panel including Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of global news, Andrew Puddephatt, a human rights activist, and Fred Tipson, director for international development policy at Microsoft, who declined to be interviewed by The Observer. Google will not be taking part but says it intends to tackle freedom of expression topics in smaller gatherings.
Google's motto, 'Do no evil', has taken a battering in recent months. It will try to repair some of the damage during three 'workshops'. Andrew McLaughlin, head of global public policy at Google, said the first event, 'Building local access', would discuss getting internet access to more people in developing nations. At another session, 'Access to knowledge and free expression', Google will warn how developing countries fear that Western intellectual property rights work to their disadvantage. It will call for a balance to be maintained in copyright law that respects the rights of the consumer as well as the content producer.
But Google is bound to be put under pressure over its foray into China. McLaughlin said: 'Google.cn is censored but we've come up with a technique for deciding what is to be censored that is basically technical, not editorial, and very reactive. That leads us to blocking from our site the minimum that the ISP [internet service provider] level requires.
'I'm sure there are lots of people who will say it's just too distasteful, it's too gross, it's too political, you shouldn't do it. That's a totally legitimate point of view,' he said.
'We've made an empirical judgment, though, that being able to hire Chinese employees and have them be part of the Google culture and be free-thinking, freewheeling internet people ... when you add it all up, we think we're helping to advance the cause of change in China.'
Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty International, did not accept the argument. 'One of the things we haven't seen from Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft is any move by them to use their collective bargaining power to negotiate with and change the terms in which they operate in countries like China,' she said.
'We do see Google with a search engine in China that gives very different results from the one for the rest for us. I think the starkest example is the picture search for Tiananmen Square. We get the man in front of the tank; in China you get a happy, smiling couple, standing in Tiananmen Square as tourists.'
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