More than ever, governments around the world are threatening online free expression. Forty countries have taken measures to limit this freedom, up from only a handful a few years ago. YouTube services are or have been blocked in 25 of those nations.
On Thursday night in Paris, we took an important step to highlight this crucial issue by sponsoring the first Netizen Prize (or more elegantly, Le Prix du "net-citoyen") awarded by the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. And on Friday, March 12, we’ll be helping highlight the fight for Internet freedom by marking the group’s World Day Against Cyber Censorship on YouTube.
Fittingly, Reporters Without Borders chose to give the first Netizen Prize to the Iranian creators of the website Change for Equality, first established in 2006 to fight for changes in laws in Tehran that discriminate against women. That site has since become a well-known source of information on women’s rights in Iran, documenting arrests of women activists and becoming a rallying point for opponents of the regime.
Over the past year those leaders in Tehran have distinguished themselves — and earned the opprobrium of people all over the world — for their brutal crackdown on the rights of its critics to question their rule. Last year's killing of unarmed Neda Agha-Soltan during post-election protests in Tehran, seen around the world on amateur video, has become a symbol of the regime's ferocity — and the power of the Internet to reveal what governments do not want the world to see.
At the award ceremony in our Paris office, Google's Senior Vice President David Drummond said that we are at a critical point in the future of the Internet: "All of us have a choice. We can allow repressive policies to take flight and spread across the globe, or we can work together against such challenges and uphold the fundamental human right to free expression.”
David went on to praise the role of NGOs like Reporters Without Borders, the Obama Administration’s commitment to the promotion of Internet freedom and the efforts of all groups that have joined the Global Network Initiative. Under the initiative, major U.S. Internet companies, human rights group, socially responsive investors and academic institutions agreed to guidelines promoting free expression and protecting the privacy of their users around the world. “In the spirit of the undiplomatic American come to European shores," he said, "let me make a plea for European governments, companies and groups to rise to the occasion. Any effort that is limited to the United States is bound to fall far short of its global potential.”