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Updated: April 16, 2012 12:29 IST

Web freedom faces greatest threat ever: Google co-founder

GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
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Google co-founder Sergey Brin criticised Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch their data to other services. File photo
AP Google co-founder Sergey Brin criticised Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch their data to other services. File photo

The principles of openness and universal access that underpinned the creation of the internet three decades ago are under greater threat than ever, according to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mr. Brin warned that there were “very powerful forces that have lined up against the open internet on all sides and around the world. I am more worried than I have been in the past.. it’s scary."

He said the threat to the freedom of the internet came from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry attempting to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” so-called walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly controlled what software could be released on their platforms.

The 38-year-old billionaire was widely regarded as having been the driving force behind Google's partial pullout from China in 2010 over concerns about censorship and cyber-attacks.

He said five years ago he did not believe China or any country could effectively restrict the internet for long but he had been proven wrong: “I thought there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, but now it seems in certain areas the genie has been put back in the bottle.”

Although he said he was most concerned by the efforts of countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran to censor and restrict use of the internet, he also warned that the rise of Facebook and Apple, which have their own proprietary platforms and control access to their users, risked stifling innovation and Balkanising the web.

“There's a lot to be lost,” he said. “For example all the information in apps - that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can't search it.”

Mr. Brin's criticism of Facebook is likely to be seen as controversial with the social network approaching an estimated $100bn flotation. Google’s upstart rival has seen explosive growth, with more than 800 million members worldwide and one in two of all Americans with computer access signed up.

Mr. Brin said he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google if the internet was dominated by Facebook. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive. The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules that will stifle innovation.”

He also criticised Facebook for not making it easy for users to switch their data to other services. “Facebook has been sucking down Gmail contacts for many years.”

Mr. Brin’s comments come on the first day of a week-long Guardian investigation of the intensifying battle for control of the internet that is being played out across the globe between governments, companies, military strategists, activists and hackers.

From Hollywood’s attempts to pass legislation allowing pirate websites to be shut down, to the British government’s plans to monitor social media and web use, the ethos of openness championed by the pioneers of the internet and world wide web is being challenged on a number of fronts.

In China, which now has more internet users than any country in the world, the government recently introduced new “real identity” rules in a bid to tame the country’s boisterous micro-blogging scene. In Russia there are powerful calls to rein in a blogosphere that was blamed for fomenting a wave of anti-Putin protests. It has been reported that Iran is planning to introduce a sealed “national internet” from this summer.

Ricken Patel, co-founder of Avaaz, the 14 million-strong online activist network which has been providing communication equipment and training to Syrian activists, echoed Mr. Brin’s warning: “We've seen a massive attack on the freedom of the web. Governments are realising the power of this medium to organise people and they are trying to clamp down across the world, not just in places like China and North Korea; we're seeing bills in the United States, in Italy, all across the world.”

Mr. Brin reserved his harshest words for the entertainment industry, which he said was “shooting itself in the foot, or maybe worse than in the foot” by lobbying for legislation to block sites offering pirate material.

He said the SOPA and PIPA bills championed by Hollywood and the music industry would have led to the U.S. using the same technology and approach it criticised China and Iran for using. The entertainment industry failed to appreciate that people would continue to download pirated content as long as it was easier to acquire and use than legitimately obtained material, he said.

“I haven’t tried it for many years but when you go on a pirate website, you choose what you like, it downloads to the device of your choice and it will just work - and then when you have to jump through all these hoops [to buy legitimate content], the walls created are disincentives for people to buy.”

Mr. Brin acknowleged that some people were anxious about the amount of their data that was now in the reach of U.S. authorities because it sits on Google's servers. He said the company was periodically forced to hand over data and sometimes prevented by legal restrictions from even notifying users that it had done so.

He said: “We push back a lot; we are able to turn down a lot of these requests. We do everything possible to protect the data. If we could wave a magic wand and not be subject to U.S. law, that would be great. If we could be in some magical jurisdiction that everyone in the world trusted, that would be great . . . We're doing it as well as can be done.”

seems like another 1980s fight against Microsoft/IBM alike ... freedom has to be preserved ...

from:  kshitij
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 21:16 IST

In olden days there had been a practice among some community in certain nations that if people belong lower cast know something knowledge,or would try to attain wisdom,or might learn the holly books had been punished with pouring melted led in their ears.This practice is going on even now in various forms.

from:  K P Reveendran Nair
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 20:41 IST

The threat for the Social site Google was not a welcoming one.Free dom
of Speech and expressions should be respected.Good informative
article.Today Social sites are playing a vital roll in meeting old
friends and others.

from:  K.Ragavan
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 20:14 IST

It should be restricted. Things which are allowed and shameless in US and west are banned and shameful in other parts of world. If you respect human rights you should learn to respect other cultures and peoples.

from:  amaan
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 16:21 IST

In the name of freedom, we cannot allow the creative works of others to be pirated and distributed freely. We cannot allow thieves, terrorists, people who fuel hatred in communities to operate freely on the internet while they are prevented from operating freely in the real world. If there is no control, how can any authority function or govern? What kind of control needs to be debated and put in place. I do not agree that internet is something which should not be controlled at all. There is enough evidence confirming this.

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 15:28 IST

In the Indian context, the question is whether Google will fight arbitrary take-down orders coming on the basis of the flawed "Information Technology Act", or comply meekly. If it believes in not siding with evil, why does Google put up a legal fight and challenge the constitutionality of the IT Act against Article 19 ? "Take down first and discuss later" is a form of invisible censorship, as pointed out by CIS-India.

from:  kumar
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 15:13 IST

Good Article, The web should be on full freedom and open. The rules of
face is very restrictive.

from:  Sushanth
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 14:36 IST

Interesting that Mr Brin chose to make these comments at the very time that Google itself is being criticised for its privacy policies. What is more, its Street View project has been under the scanner for collecting the Internet communications of millions of individuals without their consent. It is all well to call for more and more freedom, but can we trust giants like Google -- and not just governments -- not to abuse that freedom?

from:  Ninad
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 14:15 IST

It was most heartening to hear Mrs Clinton make a major policy speech
on “protecting human rights on-line as we do off-line” on 15 Feb 11
(last year). Talking about “Internet Freedom” she said that “freedom
of expression, assembly and association are what the US calls freedom
to connect” and that “the US supports this freedom for people
everywhere”.
She said 2 billion people and counting (nearly a third of mankind) use
the internet, which has become “the public place of 21st century”. To
deliver the greatest possible benefits to the world there needs to be
a shared vision, not to serve any particular agenda, but to have a
global commitment to internet freedom. “The right of individuals to
express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according
to their beliefs – these rights are universal”, off-line or on-line.
"This is a foreign policy priority, one that will only increase in
importance in the coming years," Mrs Clinton said.
Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

from:  D Mahapatra
Posted on: Apr 16, 2012 at 13:41 IST
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