Free speech under pressure — Obama in UN, Google in Brazil

President Obama's defense of free speech comes under attack at UN while Google fights censure in Brazil

By Maria Balinska

U.S. President Barack Obama walks off stage after addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 25, 2012. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

As President Obama called upon the UN nations to protect free speech this week, Google trudged forward in a global battle to post what it wants, where it wants, whenever it wants.

There are not too many surprises in how the foreign press covered Obama’s address to the UN, with many nations’ coverage reflecting that particular country’s political ideals. In Israel the headlines focused on Iran and his words “we will do what we must” to prevent Iranian nukes. The British Guardian’s top line was “Obama uses speech to condemn extremism” while Saudi-backed al-Arabiya chose to counter the president’s defense of freedom of speech with Muslim leaders calling for a “clamp down against Islamophobia”:

Obama made a strong condemnation of “violence and intolerance” in his speech at the U.N. headquarters on Tuesday. He said world leaders had a duty to speak out against the deadly attacks on Americans in the past two weeks caused by an anti-Islam film made in the United States. But Muslim kings and presidents and other heads of state said Western nations must clamp down on “Islamophobia” following the storm over the film which mocks the Prophet Mohammed, AFP reported.

In a speech that inevitably focused a lot on the Middle East, Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE noted the president “passed quickly over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The assessment of the UN Secretary General, as they pointed out, was more pessimistic: “The two-state solution,” said Ban Ki-moon, “is the only sustainable option. Yet the door may be closing, for good.”

There was, however, some time for levity even among the sober talking points. France’s socialist president Francois Hollande made his first speech at the UN. Later, reported France24, he joked with reporters that “he ‘should endorse’ Mitt Romney, while admitting that support for any US presidential candidate from a leading Socialist would be less than helpful.”

Google woes

Away from the UN, the fight over free speech — and the anti-Islam film that sparked violent protests around the world — continues.

In Brazil a state court has given Google, the owner of YouTube, 10 days to take the offensive video down from its site. As Reuters reports:

It wasn’t the only Brazilian court ruling against Google on Tuesday. Earlier, an elections court ordered the arrest of Google’s most senior executive in Brazil after the company failed to take down YouTube videos attacking a local mayoral candidate.


Cameras that capture 360-degree views to collect panoramic images are seen along Negro River in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon Basin, August 17, 2011. (Reuters/Google/Handout)

It’s to forestall moves like these that the search engine giant is investing in its own diplomacy around the world. Just how they are doing that is something the  German weekly Der Spiegel has been taking a close look at. 

Google, which accounts for a whopping 95 percent market share of all search activity in Germany, opened a brand spanking new office on one of Berlin’s most prestigious streets this week. In Germany, too, the search giant is under pressure — among other things on the docket, a defamation lawsuit by the former president’s wife. And then “there are the European Commission’s plans to issue a new data privacy regulation that would establish a right to be forgotten online, an especially menacing proposal for Google.”

As reporters Sven Becker and Stefan Niggemeier point out, all this is moving towards setting rules about what Google can and cannot do — something the company, it’s fair to assume, does not like. For its part Google has set itself the task of educating the public and their leaders. As the head of the Berlin office, Annette Kroeber-Riel, puts it: “We want to take responsibility and contribute our expertise. In conversations with politicians, it is often necessary to begin by talking about the basics of the Internet and how it works.” But that leads to the following question from Der Spiegel:

Many people would agree that this kind of work is necessary. But what does it mean when a company that has an excessively large amount of influence on everyday activities on the Internet is also involved in shaping the public discourse? And what happens when a company which has a quasi-monopoly as a search engine also threatens to gain a quasi-monopoly when it comes to explaining the Internet?

And in case you are wondering: Google’s share of the U.S. search engine market stood at 66.8 percent as of June 2012 — a record for the company in the U.S.