... As the adage goes, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’; whilst Google might have the power to publish all manner of content and link to innumerable websites, it doesn’t seek the responsibility to be the gatekeeper of this content.
“We’re taking [the Russo] case to the European Court of Justice. We do believe that the offline rules for defamation should hold online, and the person who writes the material or makes the video or creates the content is responsible for it...
“What we’re scared of is that we’ll be put in a position of having to decide [what the limits of free expression are]. We don’t want to. We don’t think that that’s the proper place for what we do.
“We would say that we are analogous with the telephone company: we don’t decide what people can say on the lines, or the post office: we don’t decide what people can put in the letter.
“That doesn’t absolve us of all responsibility – far from it – but, we do think that this is something for society to figure out, and we would like to work to make sure that limits are as minimal as possible because we prefer the maximum amount of free speech and maximising the potential of the Internet,” explains Echikson, before again adding: “But, you know, if there are laws for illegal content, we will respect them.”
As insistent as he is in saying that neither Google nor national governments should decide where the limits of free speech – and there has to be limits, says Echikson – he also insists that governments must not turn to the United Nations or similar pan-national global bodies to govern the World Wide Web.
“We believe that the present bottom-up, people-power, multi-stakeholder approach to governing the Internet has worked. We’re alarmed by the threat to impose a top-down, government control or United Nations control over the Internet.
“And I think that that is one of the battlegrounds that we are going to see in the coming year or two years. We feel we should remain vigilant because again, what the Internet does it allows each of us to express ourselves...and I think that that’s a new power that we should unleash and cherish and limit the way we throttle it...
“What we don’t want is a rush to the bottom: each of us [companies], individually trying to please governments by handing over more information or bringing down more content. That’s the danger.”
Talk of battles, vigilance, throttling and danger makes Echikson sound like a complete pessimist when it comes to the future of freedom of expression on the Internet. He vigorously denies this is the case.
“No, I’m optimistic,” he says with a smile. “If you look at some of the reactions now to SOPA and PIPA [see Google’s protest video here] ...or ACTA, I think people cherish their free internet. They’re willing to go out on the street and protest for their free Internet!”
Such street protests seem a long way away from the tranquil surroundings of the dusty bookshelves, over-looking the calm waters of the Leopoldskroner Teich.
Standing up to leave for the next session, Echikson concludes:
“The main point is this: the Internet has unleashed a wave of freedom and now we’re seeing the backlash, and we should remain vigilant. As with any tool it can be manipulated and misused but the remedy or medicine to fix it should not be something that throttles and turns off this great freedom.”
A great freedom, indeed.
(excerpted from an article written by Louise Hallman, for the Salzburg Global Seminar. See the original article here.)
William (Bill) Echikson is the head of free expression policy and PR, Europe, Middle East & Africa, for Google. He is a veteran European correspondent, writing over the past two and a half decades for a series of prestigious US publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. From 1985 to 1990, he covered the collapse of communism in Central Europe, which resulted in his book Lighting the Night: Revolution in Eastern Europe and focuses on his observations and experiences during that period. Mr. Echikson turned to business and cultural reporting in the 1990s, and published two more books, Burgundy Stars, a behind-the-scenes look at a French gastronomic shrine, and Noble Rot, on the Bordeaux wine world. From 2001 until 2007, he was the Brussels bureau chief at Dow Jones. He has considerable experience with EU issues, most prominently antitrust, trade and environment. He served as editor-in-chief of Libération's special international supplements during the mid-1990s. Mr. Echikson also has written, directed and produced television documentaries for America's Public Broadcasting Service. He joined Google in 2008 as the company's Brussels spokesman. He became responsible for communications in Southern and Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa the following year.