Internet censorship should be treated as a barrier to trade, according to the chief executive of search and advertising giant Google.
Speaking last week at a conference organised by US thinktank the Progress & Freedom Foundation, Eric Schmidt said that to defend freedom of speech, governments should use internet censorship as a non-tariff trade barrier.
"The internet has created this remarkable set of free markets and open competitions," said Schmidt. "We need to keep it free and open — if it goes the other way then we've got a serious problem."
"We need to defend freedom of speech as more speech comes online. You could use internet censorship as a non-tariff trade barrier, for example, because governments, especially non-US governments, have an incentive to some degree to control the population, if you're afraid of empowering your citizens. There are all sorts of issues — what are standards of objectionable content, how the laws differ from country to country — but this has to be sorted out, because this is a global phenomenon. It has to happen now," Schmidt added.
Google has been criticised in the past for its own practice of self-censorship in China. The search giant was criticised in 2004 for omitting news links to sites such as the Epoch Times. Searches done from a proxy in China, to simulate searching from inside China, did not contain news from sites that are banned by the Chinese government, such as the Epoch Times.
According to the English version of the Epoch Times site, it publishes content that is banned by the Chinese Communist Party and deemed "too sensitive" by most Chinese-language news organisations outside China. Topics discussed include the Aids epidemic in China, alleged corruption in the Chinese government, the occupation of Tibet and alleged human rights abuses.
Rachel Whetstone, Google's director of European corporate communications and public affairs, said there was no inconsistency in promoting freedom of speech while practicing self-censorship in China.
"Because we have to comply with local law, there is certain information we're required not to link to in China. That doesn't mean that's incompatible with freedom of speech, and it's not inconsistent," Whetstone said. "The best way to help development in China is to engage with China, not estrange China. Where we do remove information in China we make it clear we have done so — we're the only search engine in China that does that. Being there we can provide more information, and we remove only a small percentage. One percent we remove, 99 percent we provide. We recognise that some people disagree with this position."
Whetstone acknowledged that Google has an economic interest in the massive Chinese advertising market. "We are a business, of course, but if we didn't think we could provide meaningful information we wouldn't have launched Google.cn," she said. She added that while Schmidt's call was directed towards the US government, it included all governments, including the UK.
In his speech, Schmidt also called for governments to collaborate with industry to work towards universal broadband access, "making sure that networks remain content neutral", and for governments to be more transparent to their citizens.