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Craig Parshall, General Counsel

 

Google Report: Wolf “Crying Wolf”?

June 20, 2012

When Google releases its Global Transparency Report next Monday it will reveal that out of the 1,000 government requests in six months directed to the new media giant to censor information, more than half the time it complied, according to the Wall Street Journal. Accordingly, does Google’s complaint in its report about the “alarming” rate of government censorship of the Internet show us a company that is, in essence, a wolf ”crying wolf," or is it genuinely committed to defending the flock? This becomes more important when we leave the realm of government censorship and look at the reality of anti-religious censorship by the new media companies themselves – tech enterprises like Google, Apple and Facebook - which is the focus of NRB’s John Milton Project for Religious Free Speech. The need to convince these companies to voluntarily exercise a higher regard for the free speech interests of citizen users, particularly people of faith, was the consensus of the panel at our John Milton roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill in May, which included a current FCC Commissioner, a Heritage Foundation policy expert and three constitutional lawyers.

The magnitude of the problem is beyond debate. In the case of Google, it had previously bowed to China’s anti-religious mandates on web content, and censored a Christian pro-life ad on its search engine in England. Its content policies ban “hate speech” (a popular cultural ploy to suppress Christian ideas) and limit criticism of “sexual orientation or gender identity” or anything that “advocate[s] against” a group because of its religious beliefs (presumably barring meaningful discussion of Islamic terrorism). Of course, Google is not alone: our John Milton Project report titled True Liberty in a New Media Age (September 2011) has identified similar problems with Apple and Facebook. And to Google’s credit, it has now reportedly changed its policy of limiting use of its “Google for Non-Profits” web tool to only secular non-profit organizations; now, churches and other faith groups may also benefit. Let’s hope that Google’s interest in free speech will extend to its own policies and practices. If it does, it could be a historic precedent for other communications companies to follow. But the hard work still remains to be done. In the words of PCWorld’s Tony Bradley, the big issue is “defining what’s legitimate free speech, and what should be blocked or taken down.” That, by the way, is exactly what the John Milton Project is presently working on as you read this.