Insight into Google’s free expression decision making

I am fast to skip lengthy blog posts, but this one – “Free expression and controversial content on the web” – in the Official Google Blog somehow hooked me from the first sentence:

Our world would be a very boring place if we all agreed all the time.

What followed was a lengthy insight into what Google people have to deal with on an every day basis, how they have to balance between what they want, what their customers and users want, and what different governments want.

At Google we have a bias in favor of people’s right to free expression in everything we do. We are driven by a belief that more information generally means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual. But we also recognize that freedom of expression can’t be — and shouldn’t be — without some limits. The difficulty is in deciding where those boundaries are drawn. For a company like Google with services in more than 100 countries – all with different national laws and cultural norms – it’s a challenge we face many times every day.
In a few cases it’s straightforward. For example, we have a global all-product ban against child pornography, which is illegal in virtually every country. But when it comes to political extremism it’s not as simple. Different countries have come to different conclusions about how to deal with this issue. In Germany there’s a ban on the promotion of Nazism — so we remove Nazi content on products on (our domain for German users) products. Other countries’ histories make commentary or criticism on certain topics especially sensitive. And still other countries believe that the best way to discredit extremists is to allow their arguments to be publicly exposed.

Google’s globalism (reminder: more than 100 countries), and the scale at which they work (for example, Google is often called the duct tape of the Web) are unprecedented.  Being a pioneer surely has its bright sides (like money and power), but it also brings a lot of responsibility and a total or partial lack of established practices.

Dealing with controversial content is one of the biggest challenges we face as a company. We don’t pretend to have all the right answers or necessarily to get every judgment right. But we do try hard to think things through from first principles, to be as transparent as possible about how we make decisions, and to keep reviewing and debating our policies. After all, the right to disagree is a sign of a healthy society.

One thing I’m glad about is that I don’t have to make decisions balancing between people of different cultural backgrounds.  As much as I want to be an all satisfying nice guy, the reality is that I see the world in black and white more often than I should or want to.  On more than one occasion I was very critical and practically insulting to a person who has a different point of view on some subject that I’m passionate about.

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