The Internet is the world’s biggest economic and social success story of the past three decades, fueling free expression on an unprecedented scale. Built from the bottom-up, powered by the people, private business, technical experts, civil society groups and governments all have joined together to write an amazing narrative. Yet this construction is now under threat. Many governments want to impose government control over the Net, and many are attempting to use the United Nations to achieve this goal.

Fortunately, many parts of the UN are pushing back, and standing up for freedom. The UN’s Internet Government Forum brings together the various Internet actors and represents arguably, the key part of the Internet’s bottom-up structure. Another key UN ally is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which from February 25-27 is holding an important conference in Paris called World Summit on the Information Society +10.

Up to 800 representatives from governments, civil society and private business are attending UNESCO’s conference, which will review the state of Internet freedom in advance of a head-of-state event scheduled for 2015. Hundreds of others will participate from remote locations, thanks to Internet connections. Google is supporting the conference and will be participating in the various panels and debates.

Each session will produce a set of recommendations. A drafting group will distill the main points from the recommendations. Crucially, the final document will not be negotiated by governments but developed through an open-ended multi-stakeholder conference.

UNESCO itself has proved a steadfast ally in the battle to keep the Internet free and open. Each year, it sponsors the World Press Freedom Award. Last year, Google supported the event which took place in post-revolution Tunisia. Within the UN system, UNESCO supports the multi-stakeholder system, insisting that non-governmental organizations be consulted and engaged in Internet decision-making. We look forward to the debates this week in Paris and hope the results bolster the free and open Internet.

UPDATE: A highlight video of the Big Tent Baku is now available. Please take a look.

The Internet has been built from the bottom up. From its origins as a US Government research project, private business, public authorities, civil society, academia and 2.3 billion users have built it over the past three decades into a global information network. Today, we stand at a crossroads as more than a thousand representatives of Internet businesses, NGOs, and governments assemble in Azerbaijan at the United Nations Seventh Intergovernmental Forum.

While the Net has grown to embrace and enhance almost every human activity, more and more governments, unnerved by its revolutionary freedoms, are seeking to constrain its use. According to the Open Net Initiative, some 42 countries censor, filter or block content on the web. Google is going to Azerbaijan to stand up for freedom and openness of the Internet. At the Internet Governance Forum, all of us can make contributions. All our voices are heard. The Net's value is found in its generalized nature, its abilities to allow all shades of colour to be displayed.

Many of the same governments that restrict Net freedom in their home countries want to interfere with this success story. Some are proposing to impose a new United Nations agency to govern the Net. Others want to use the already established, Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union, as a ‘stalking horse,’ slipping dangerous provisions into a soon-to-be-negotiated telecommunications treaty.

This evening in Azerbaijan, we are hosting a Big Tent to discuss these crucial Internet governance issues. Our featured guest is Vint Cerf, famed for the role he played in developing the Net’s early technology - and his tireless support for the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum.

At the Big Tent, Baku, we're going to look at this battle for freedom, first hand and up close in Azerbaijan. Our host country is going through a momentous transformation in the two decades since it won independence. It has made huge strides developing its economy. It international profile is rising fast. Yet a strong debate is now underway about freedom of speech. Some bloggers have been imprisoned. Others face restrictions on what they can say online. At the Big Tent, we will show an excerpt from a film about Internet freedom in Azerbaijan.

Under the UN's own convention, each and every one of us enjoys the right to express ourselves freely. We recognize that the limits of free speech are open for debate - different cultural norms allow different levels of expression. We ourselves do not accept certain types of content on Google platforms - for example, videos that incite violence, or child pornography. Wherever we operate locally, we respect local law, even if that means pulling down content that's legal elsewhere. But our bottom line remains a strong preference for keeping the Net as open and free as possible.

It was a demanding timetable. When Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt announced our intention to fund an Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin last February, we and four distinguished university partners aimed to launch by autumn. Together we made the deadline. More than 500 guests from politics, business, media and science this week packed the Auditorium Maximum of Berlin's Humboldt University for the opening the Alexander von Humboldt Institute.

The German government representative Birgit Grundmann, Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, spoke personally of the challenges of the digital world. This institution “interests me as the mother of two Internet addicted children," she said. “What are the information gaps and what must citizens be better informed about? The issue of transparency requires further research, as does data and consumer protection, and the question of the limits of anonymity on the net."

The Institute’s first academic activity is a three-day symposium “Exploring the Digital Future” running through Friday. We expected about 200 participants. At the first session today, we were pleased to see more than 300. The symposium is tasked with defining the issues for the Institute to address. The Institute itself will choose its subjects to study; potential topics include Internet privacy, freedom of expression and civil liberties.

Humboldt University will house the Institute’s offices. Alexander von Humboldt, the Institute’s namesake, was once described by Charles Darwin as "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived". He is remembered as one of the founders of modern geography, thought leader of the Enlightenment and an explorer whose travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed science in the nineteenth century.

Our Senior Vice President David Drummond evoked Alexander von Humboldt, imagining how he would have worked today. David joked that "for his travels around the globe hopefully von Humboldt would also have used Google Maps.” He expressed hope that the institute “will be based on a philosophy of openness, open access, standards and an ability to innovation.”

He then handed over the new Institute's plaque to the academic leaders. If the opening ceremony gives any idea, the Institute looks set to enjoy a bright future.

In February of this year, our Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt announced that we would support the establishment of an Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin. This Tuesday, we’re thrilled to announce the Institute’s official opening at the Humboldt University. Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger and Google Senior Vice President David Drummond will speak. More than 400 politicians, academics and civil society representatives are expected to attend.

We are proud to have attracted four renowned partners from German academia for the Institute: the Humboldt University, the University of the Arts, and the Social Science Research Center Berlin. The Hamburg Hans Bredow Institute joins as a co-operation partner. Each institution is seconding a distinguished academic.

Humboldt’s Prof. Dr. h.c. Ingolf Pernice will study constitutional aspects of the Internet. The Social Science Research Center’s Dr. Jeanette Hofmann will probe Internet policy, while the University of the Arts’s Prof. Dr. Thomas Schildhauer will look at the Internet and innovation and Hamburg’s Dr. Wolfgang Schulz will weigh in on the Internet’s impact on media.

Humboldt University will house the Institute’s offices. Alexander von Humboldt, the Institute’s namesake, was once described by Charles Darwin as "the greatest scientific traveler who ever lived". He is remembered as one of the founders of modern geography, thought leader of the Enlightenment and an explorer whose travels, experiments, and knowledge transformed science in the nineteenth century.

From October 26-28 the Institute will host an international academic symposium "Exploring the Digital Future." Distinguished academics from all around the globe will appear, including the Director of the Harvard’s Berkman Center Urs Gasser, St. Gallen University’s Oliver Gassmann, Haifa University’s Niva Elkin-Koren, and many others.

This week’s symposium will discuss the initial research agenda for the Institute. The goal is to carry out “hands on” research rather than just analysis and reflection. The Institute will seek solutions to today’s challenges, using insights from policy makers, netizens, users, as well as technology companies like Google.

Importantly, the Institute will not advocate a simplistic “pro-Internet” stance. Instead, it will critically review current practices. For example, how can we foster the use of the Internet to advance civil liberties? Experts will pose questions like these about free expression as well as privacy and democratic processes.

This is not a "Google Institute.” It is an independent academic body. Google will not interfere with the research. Of course, Google is keenly interested in better understanding the interaction between the web, academia and society. But we need experts to help us all understand how the web is changing our world. We have found great institutions and great personalities as partners. We now look forward to seeing the first scientific papers from the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society.

  • Photos from the opening event posted below.
  • Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger was unfortunately unable to attend the opening event due to urgent negotiations ahead of the Euro Area Summit in Brussels, but Secretary of State Dr. Birgit Grundmann kindly stood in for the Minister and gave an excellent, inspiring speech.

When Members of Parliament regrouped in Berlin last year after the German Federal elections, one of the first things they did was establish the Enquete-Kommission to look into the internet and digital society. The group was tasked with examining how Germany’s political, legal and social frameworks need to adapt to the opportunities and challenges presented by the digital revolution.  

Since the Kommission’s establishment, discussions in Germany about the internet have been infused with new energy.  A wide variety of stakeholders are coming to the table to share their positions and arguments. Berlin’s political community is getting involved in the discussion about the possibilities of the web as never before. And German web users from all walks of life are finding their voice, contributing to the debate and sharing their views on what the internet means for them and for society at large.

At Google, we’re keen to stimulate and support this very important discussion. That’s why we’re one of the initiators (together with a wide range of other interested parties) of a new thinktank, the Internet & Society Co:llaboratory, which we also fund.  We think it takes a refreshingly independent and innovative approach to debating how the internet affects us all in our daily lives – and how we can ensure it continues to be an engine of innovation and economic growth.

At the core of the Co:llaboratory are independent internet policy experts representing the worlds of science, business, and civil society. These experts bring a diverse range of viewpoints to the table and are responsible for both monitoring developments in the digital world and defining the key issues the group wants to debate. Every quarter, they will make proposals for how developments in the digital world can be framed and used in the best possible way for society as a whole.

It is not called the Co:llaboratory for nothing. Every three months, the group will test and refine its positions and recommendations on a specific topic with a wide community of stakeholders. Their feedback and positions are then brought together into a quarterly report which gives a snapshot of how people think and feel about particular issues.  The Co:llaboratory also shares its findings via its website and its YouTube channel, which is managed and moderated by, one of the co-initiators of the thinktank.

The Co:llaboratory recently issued its first report on the state of online innovation culture in Germany – one of the first to come out after the establishment of the parliamentary commission. The findings are based on a survey of more than 530 members of the broader German internet community, and on more than 2,300 responses and statements, covering five key areas:
  • Internet governance and standardisation
  • Removing obstacles to innovation: legal frameworks and intellectual property
  • Data protection and the principle of choice
  • Digital communication, democracy and freedom of speech
  • Reducing the digital divide and the importance of access to the internet
I’d encourage you to read the report: it’s insightful, thought-provoking, controversial in places. We don’t necessarily agree with everything that’s said in the report either. But what’s important is that there is now a recognition in Germany that the internet really matters and that it is vital to ensuring we remain innovative and competitive as a country. We’re glad to be engaged in the debate, and we hope that there will be more initiatives like the Co:llaboratory, ensuring that the views of web users are represented too. 

Posted by: Dr. Max Senges, Google Policy team, Germany
[BTW: if you’re not a German speaker, you might want to use Google Translate to take a closer look at some of the links I’ve included in this post.]

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Written in 1948, the principle applies aptly to today's Internet -- one of the most important means of free expression in the world. Yet government censorship of the web is growing rapidly: from the outright blocking and filtering of sites, to court orders limiting access to information and legislation forcing companies to self-censor content.

So it's no surprise that Google, like other technology and telecommunications companies, regularly receives demands from government agencies to remove content from our services. Of course many of these requests are entirely legitimate, such as requests for the removal of child pornography. We also regularly receive requests from law enforcement agencies to hand over private user data. Again, the vast majority of these requests are valid and the information needed is for legitimate criminal investigations. However, data about these activities historically has not been broadly available. We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship.

We are today launching a new Government Requests tool to give people information about the requests for user data or content removal we receive from government agencies around the world. For this launch, we are using data from July-December, 2009, and we plan to update the data in 6-month increments. Read this post to learn more about our principles surrounding free expression and controversial content on the web.

We already try to be as transparent as legally possible with respect to requests. Whenever we can, we notify users about requests that may affect them personally. If we remove content in search results, we display a message to users. The numbers we are sharing today take this transparency a step further and reflect the total number of requests we have received broken down by jurisdiction. We are also sharing the number of these content removal requests that we do not comply with, and while we cannot yet provide more detail about our compliance with user data requests in a useful way, we intend to do so in the future.

As part of our commitment to the Global Network Initiative, we have already agreed to principles and practices that govern privacy and free expression. In the spirit of these principles, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests for censorship and data around the globe. We also hope that this is just the first step toward increased transparency about these actions across the technology and communications industries.

It's been an exciting week for the two of us in sunny Sharm El Sheikh at the Internet Governance Forum. A highlight for us on the final day here in Egypt was when our chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cert participated via video. In his presentation, Vint emphasized how the forum brings together "a remarkable assembly of people concerned about the Internet and its use on a global scale." He spoke about the huge advantages in human knowledge fostered by the Net - and warned of the many dangers, from spam to outright fraud, that threaten to undermine its true potential.

We laid out our positive conclusion about this international gathering in a blog posted yesterday. At today's 'Taking Stock' session, the overwhelming sentiment in the room was one of strong support for continuation of this multilateral Internet stakeholder forum beyond its current five year term. Vint regretted his "inability" to attend this year's meeting and forcing the delegates to "put up with Virtual Vint." But he vowed to be present in person at next year's Forum. We too are looking forward to participating in next year's Forum in Lithuania, and we commend Kenya for having offered to host a 2011 Forum.

Posted by Susan Pointer, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations, and Maximilian Senges, Policy Analyst