Busy week last week, culminating with a trip to Brixton Academy on the Thursday to hear Pete Doherty and Babyshambles. There is musicianship and lyrical skill in there (I'm convinced of it! Some of my friends who are musicians are … less certain, shall we say), but this populist, narcissistic evening obscured most of that. (I found myself thinking how strangely reminiscent of Blair he is: needing to be loved, yet coming over so much of the time as considering himself … special.) We move on.
Friday afternoon and a quick trip to the Oxford Internet Institute where Andrew McLaughlin, Google's worldwide policy counsel, was speaking on Google vs. ?: Challenges to Freedom of Information on a Global Network:
Andrew McLaughlin is Head of Global Public Policy for Google Inc. Central policy issues for Google include privacy and data protection, censorship and content regulation, intellectual property (including copyright, patent, and trademark), communications and media policy, antitrust/competition, and the regulation of Internet networks and technologies. The leading countries for Google's government affairs activities include the US, Canada, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, China, India, Australia, Russia, Germany, France, the UK, Israel, Egypt, and Ireland. Andrew co-leads Google's Africa Strategy Group.
Now that was a well-spent hour+. Some notes:
Google faces a number of challenges:
- Censorship: repressive regimes are what one immediately thinks of here and of these China is the only one to which Google has made any accommodation. User-generated content is highly sensitive to the powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia, China, Iran … (So that's blogs, then.) Less obvious forms of censorship include interpretations of what "has to go" because of concerns about child protection and issues to do with cultural protection. Pay close attention to the EC Audio-Visual Services Directive (formerly, TV Without Frontiers) — an effort to create content control — and the Online Content Directive (I think I got this down right, but I can't find anything about it online).
- Copyright: without Fair Use rights, Google would not exist. Copyright must be revised so as to seek a better balance between the rights of creators (to whose benefit copyright law is currently skewed) and the rights of users. Andrew showed three videos which, in different ways, re-mix copyright material: Shining, BSB-I want it that way and The Grey Video. (BSB was, he said, a huge phenomenon in China.) Currently, no meaningful Fair Use rights exist in Australia.
- Discrimination by carriers: network neutrality; quality of service.
- Security. For example, Google Earth maps the world and you can swoop in on … a Chinese nuclear facility. The UK's attitude is 'no security through obscurity', but China, Russia, India and others are not so happy. So far, Google hasn't blurred or blocked a single image at the request of a government. During the recent war in the Lebanon, there was no real time coverage of the action (within Google's technical ability to do) and served images are, on average and approximately, 18 months behind the present, except during national disasters when all the stops are pulled out and images are as current as possible. (This is all to avoid any unhelpful clash with governmental agencies and consequent, restrictive legislation.) Finally, out of concerns about privacy, image resolution will never go so low as to allow identification of individuals.
Google chooses not to geo-target users by ISP address and then use this to enforce a government's repressive/restrictive laws. So, google.de users can go to google.com to search for what Germany requires Google to block on Google Deutschland. (Yahoo! was forced to implement a ban in France on accessing yahoo.com, but this was in a specific case and established no generic principle.)
Chilling Effects maintains a database of Cease and Desist orders.
Some positive things to celebrate or look forward to:
- Statistical machine translation: one day IM chat in two different languages will be possible. Saudi Arabia doesn't like the service (it was being used to translate English > English, generating an unblocked — new — URL in the process).
- Cloud computing.
- Ubiquitous connectivity: mobile telephony; spreading wireless access; increasing deployment of fiber connectivity.
- Other specific initiatives: eg, Google Literacy, US Government Search.
After the talk, I asked Andrew about Google Desktop and, specifically, Search Across Computers: 'The latest version of Google Desktop provides a Search Across Computers feature. This feature will allow you to search your home computer from your work computer, for example'. (To access this option in Google Desktop Beta Preferences, right click on the Google Desktop icon in the system tray > Preferences > Google Account Features.) I wasn't surprised to hear that the take-up of this has been limited. Many of us seem to be happy-ish with our email residing on Google's servers, but putting our documents there seems to cross some kind of psychological barrier. I suspect that this will change over the next few years as we slide into using more tools that work both online and off, but users haven't taken to this just yet.
By the way, I note that IWR reports: Microsoft and Google have joined forces with the British Library in calling on the government to radically overhaul the intellectual property (IP) law.