WASHINGTON – Once relatively indifferent to government affairs, Google Inc. is seeking help inside the Beltway to fight the rise of Web censorship worldwide.
The online search giant is taking a novel approach to the problem by asking U.S. trade officials to treat Internet restrictions as international trade barriers, similar to other hurdles to global commerce, such as tariffs.
Google sees the dramatic increase in government Net censorship, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, as a potential threat to its advertising-driven business model, and wants government officials to consider the issue in economic, rather than just political, terms.
"It's fair to say that censorship is the No. 1 barrier to trade that we face," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's director of public policy and government affairs. A Google spokesman said Monday that McLaughlin has met with officials from the U.S. Trade Representative's office several times this year to discuss the issue.
"If censorship regimes create barriers to trade in violation of international trade rules, the USTR would get involved," USTR spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said. She added though that human rights issues, such as censorship, typically falls under the purview of the State Department.
While human rights activists are pleased with Google's efforts to fight censorship, they harshly criticized the company early last year for agreeing to censor its Web site in China, which has the second-largest number of Internet users in the world.
The company defends its actions, saying the Chinese government made it a condition of allowing Chinese users access to Google Web pages. China has an Internet firewall that slows or disrupts Chinese users from accessing foreign uncensored Web sites.
Censorship online has risen dramatically the past five years, belying the hype of the late 1990s, which portrayed the Internet as largely impervious to government interference.
A study released last month by the OpenNet Initiative found that 25 of 41 countries surveyed engage in Internet censorship. That's a dramatic increase from the two or three countries guilty of the practice in 2002, says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, who helped prepare the report.
China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, India, Singapore and Thailand, among others, are increasingly blocking or filtering Web pages, Palfrey says.
Governments "are having more success than the more idealistic of us thought," acknowledges Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Still, even government filtering isn't always successful. In a brutal regime like Iran, which filters Web content, there are nearly 100,000 bloggers, making Farsi "one of the most blogged languages in the world," says Palfrey.
Google's YouTube has become a common target for thin-skinned rulers. Turkey in March blocked the video-sharing site for two days after a complaint that some clips insulted Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Thailand continues to block YouTube after several videos appeared in April, criticizing the country's monarch.
Bloggers in Morocco said in late May that they could not access YouTube shortly after videos were posted critical of that nation's treatment of the people of Western Sahara, a territory that Morocco took control of in 1975. A government spokesman blamed a technical glitch.
One likely source for Google's censorship idea is a paper written two years ago by Timothy Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, who argues that downloading a Web page hosted in another country effectively imports a service.
Drawing on that concept, Google envisions using trade agreements to fight back. The negotiated pacts would include provisions guaranteeing free trade in "information services." As is true of most trade pacts, the provisions would call for arbitration if there are violations.
The U.S. has a trade agreement with Morocco and began negotiating one with Thailand in 2004, although those talks were suspended early last year after a military coup.
Columbia's Wu said the trade pact approach is likely to be more effective when governments are guilty of blocking entire Web sites or applications, such as Internet phone-calling, than when they filter specific content.
Under World Trade Organization rules, countries can limit trade for national security or public moral reasons, Wu said, exceptions that authoritarian governments would likely cite when filtering politically sensitive material.
The company's trade initiative reflects Google's increasing acceptance of the value of federal lobbying. The company didn't hire a lobbyist until 2003, according to public filings, but paid the high-powered Washington-based Podesta Group $160,000 last year to work on Internet free-speech, tax and other issues.
Human rights groups say Google's censorship efforts seem sincere, albeit motivated by bottom-line incentives.
"Free expression is a unique selling point" for a company like Google, O'Brien said. Filtering and censorship "diminishes the value of their product."
Yet last month at the company's annual meeting, Google's board recommended investors vote against a shareholder resolution urging Google to renounce censorship.
The resolution was defeated, although Google is already acting on some of the proposal's ideas, including working with other technology leaders, such as Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., to develop a set of principles on how companies should respond to censorship and other human rights violations when doing business abroad.
Human rights advocates, academics and corporate social responsibility groups are involved in the project, announced earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Google's global growth efforts continue. YouTube said Tuesday that it plans to expand into nine other countries, including Brazil, France, Spain and Poland, offering local-language Web sites and highlighting videos of domestic interest.
In China, where Google is the No. 2 search engine behind the domestically based Baidu.com, the company said in April it will increase its investment as it works to create more content of interest to Chinese users.