Over the past couple of years, Iran has not-so-secretly been building the foundations for an internal Iran-only version of the Internet, separated from the rest of the world. Two weeks ago they took it out for a spin, shutting out Google properties such as Gmail and YouTube. When many Iranians voiced their displeasure at losing access to their e-mail, the government quickly reversed course, restoring access to Gmail. This was hailed by some very smart people, such as EFF’s Jillian York, as evidence that cutting off access to the global Internet is doomed to failure. But I think we may be celebrating prematurely.
If you believe that the Internet has become “too big to block” (or contains too many cute kittens) without risking open revolt, then it naturally follows that companies faced with the threat of blockage should call the bully’s bluff; the aims of free speech could never be furthered by removing a video, tweet, or blog. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Jillian and others at EFF have taken Google to task for its decision to voluntarily remove the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” video from Libya and Egypt. The video did not violate Google’s terms of service and Google did not receive any formal government requests; taking down the video in the absence of those prerequisites was a departure from past practices. It was that departure that Eva Galperin of EFF called Google “turn[ing] its back” on free speech. And Jillian expressed the concern that Google has placed “itself in the role of arbiter” and is unilaterally deciding what people in different countries should or should not see. This criticism is justified if a countrywide blockade is indeed doomed to fail.
But what if it is not a bluff and a country could successfully block Google or totally separate itself from the global Internet? In that case, Google’s decision seems more justifiable. Forestalling a total block preserves access to 99.99% of YouTube and all of the speech therein. Should Google have waited for a formal takedown request while Libyan citizens are still waiting for a government? Egypt and Libya are two countries with new regimes and old histories of filtering. By removing the video, Google ensured that Libyan and Egyptian citizens could continue to benefit from all the non-censored speech that remains on YouTube.
Iran was ham-handed in what they did with Google, and they paid a political price for it. But we must be careful not to conflate a failure of execution with a failure of policy. Given a defter political touch, it is less clear that highly separated national networks—little “i” internets—are doomed to failure.
What Google did in pulling down the video was not as radical as it might seem. Is Google acting as the arbiter of content? Yes, but it also acts as the arbiter of content when it decides whether videos contain gratuitous violence (and therefore violate the terms of service). And it exercises its discretion with every single search you make. Every time you search for something on Google, the results you get back represent Google’s editorial discretion as to what constitutes relevant results. In fact, Google has claimed these decisions are so subjective that they represent the company’s constitutionally protected speech. Recently Facebook removed the New Yorker’s entire Facebook page after it posted a cartoon featuring an image of a topless Eve. Thus, it is nothing new for these corporations, who are in many ways the very heart of the Internet, to exercise their discretion in determining the content that they present to their users.
Similarly, the idea of an Internet that provides a fundamentally different experience depending upon the geographic location of a visitor is not as radical as it might seem. In 2000, the French High Court in LICRA v. Yahoo! ruled that Yahoo’s auction site must not display Nazi memorabilia to visitors from France, forcing the company to show different sites to different people. Professor Larry Lessig was writing about the Balkanization of the Internet in 2004, noting that the global Internet was quickly becoming “a collection of nation-state networks” that are for all intents and purposes separate. Similarly, in 2008, Doc Searls described the “Splinternet,” where entities such as Apple and NPR use geographic boundaries to limit the scope of their services. As Professors Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu said in 2006: “Geography turns out to be one of the most important ways to organize information on this medium that was supposed to destroy geography.” Thus, where you live has long determined what you can see.
These trends continue today. Google’s transparency report shows how from July to December 2011, Google received over 1000 requests from governments requesting that the company remove content from their respective jurisdictions. And that does not include the material that Google chooses to remove on its own volition, usually for violations of the company’s terms of service. In contrast, Twitter has thus far resisted the march toward Balkanization. Although Twitter created a system that would remove Tweets from a given locale (and only that locale) following a government request, as of June 30, 2012, they had not actually used this tool. That said, the fact that Twitter has the tool suggests that they too will eventually move towards Balkanization. Today, more often than not political boundaries and their concomitant legal restrictions determine how the Internet is experienced in a given locale.
That said, even when these companies act as arbiters of content, their fundamental offerings remain relatively constant. For example, Google has made the editorial decision to remove The Pirate Bay from its autocomplete listings, but it still appears in search results. And even if Google entirely removed The Pirate Bay from its search results, Google would still function very much in the same manner as it does today, running billions of searches per day. True, the results would be a little less useful and representative of the total web, but on the whole the experience would be largely the same.
If by removing the “Innocence of Muslims” video, Google prevented an outright block of YouTube or other Google services, it may have preserved more speech than it surrendered. Censorship that goes video-by-video, link-by-link, or Tweet-by-Tweet is ultimately a losing game for the censors. 72 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Twitter handles more than 400 million Tweets per day. For every “Innocence of Muslims” movie that is removed, how many offensive videos remain? Removing every offensive Tweet or video is simply impossible. Free speech is not in short supply, and with each passing day the job of the censors becomes exponentially more challenging.
It is easy to believe the Internet is a single cohesive experience. Its very name suggests this: proper noun “Internet.” With a capital “I” the name implies that there is only one Internet. IBM, in their tutorial about Internet protocols, states that “The words internetwork and internet are simply a contraction of the phrase interconnected network. However, when written with a capital “I”, the Internet refers to the worldwide set of interconnected networks. Therefore, the Internet is an internet, but the reverse does not apply.” In other words, Internet is the one network that connects everyone.
But the Big I Internet is not a given. Due to Google’s actions, Libya and Egypt lost access to a single offensive video. In contrast, Afghanistan and Pakistan chose to block YouTube entirely, depriving their citizens of not only that video but every other video on the platform. Such a shift moves us ever further from an Internet, toward a series of similar but independent little i internets.
As I noted above, perhaps the clearest example of this is Iran’s attempt to construct a self-sufficient internal internet. Recent studies have uncovered a shadow network operating in parallel to the existing Internet but accessible only within Iran. The recent Google debacle in Iran demonstrated that simply turning off access to a popular site can be politically perilous; that, however, was a relatively clumsy approach. Instead, Iran could slowly move toward supporting two separate and very unequal networks: one that is fast, cheap, and dependable but wholly internal to Iran, and another that is slow, expensive, and unreliable but connected to the outside world. Under such a scenario, many Iranians may voluntarily place themselves into a little i internet.
This is not unlike what China already does. China uses its so-called Great Firewall of China to block Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. In their stead, China has encouraged the development of tightly regulated national equivalents, which have become extraordinarily popular. By some counts China’s Twitter-like service, Sina Weibo, has 300 million users, or twice the number of people using Twitter.
Such little i networks may only become more common as the enabling technology becomes ever cheaper. Should that happen, then we are no longer talking about a handful of videos or Tweets being removed among the deluge of other content. Instead, access to entire swaths of the Internet would become difficult, if not impossible, from many parts of the world. If Google forestalled that future by removing access to a single video, then it is not perhaps the unequivocal handicap to free speech that some suggest.
Perhaps I am like Neville Chamberlain, ceding the Czechoslovakia of free speech in the name of appeasement. But I believe that as long as content removals are limited and transparently documented through sites such as Google’s and Twitter’s transparency reports, Chilling Effects, and Herdict, free speech is supported by keeping some of the Internet’s most important sites generally accessible.