What Google’s ‘Don’t be evil’ motto means for religious freedom and free expression

Google’s playful primary colors, quirky Doodles and whimsical office spaces are outward expressions of the company’s “Don’t be evil” motto. But the real work Googlers do trying to uphold that mantra goes far beyond flash.

I recently spoke with Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s global head of free expression and international relations, about what the company is doing to address hate speech, free speech and religious freedom online. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Pellot: Why does Google have an entire team devoted to freedom of expression?

Ross LaJeunesse: We think fighting for free expression online is right for our users. It’s also right for the internet itself. The net has been successful because it was designed as an open system. Free expression is also important for society as a whole. It’s essential for creativity, innovation and economic growth. It’s also really good for our business. The bigger and more robust the internet is, the more people will use our services.

BP: What overlap do you see between freedom of expression and religious freedom, especially online?

RL: I increasingly think about freedom of expression in terms of the other things it enables rather than just an end in itself. It allows the arts to thrive, it’s essential for democratic governance. Without freedom of expression, religious freedom and other freedoms wouldn’t be possible. When you look at regimes that are less friendly to free expression or an open internet, they’re often the same regimes that restrict religions. In general, we think offline rights should also apply online.

BP: Google’s Transparency Report lists government requests from 20 countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, India, Poland, Turkey and Germany, to remove content flagged for “religious offense.” How does Google respond to such requests?

RL: We take these requests very seriously. In countries where there are valid laws that ban religious offense, India being one, we usually have to comply. We look at each request to make sure it meets both the spirit and letter of the law, and we often push back to limit the scope of the takedown request. In India, for example, we might restrict a video locally at Google.co.in if it actually violates local laws, but the content would still be available at Google.com where local laws do not apply.

BP: How do YouTube’s community guidelines address some of these issues around religious freedom and religious offense?

RL: It’s really about striking a balance. We recognize that our services and properties are platforms for freedom of expression, but some are also community spaces. Google Search is sacrosanct. We’ll only take stuff down there if absolutely legally required to do so. On YouTube and Google+ we’re trying to build a community and to establish a safe space for people to share content and ideas. The community guidelines are there to ensure that as many people can enjoy the community as possible.

We have clear guidelines about things like hate speech:

“We encourage free speech and defend everyone’s right to express unpopular points of view. But we don’t permit hate speech (speech which attacks or demeans a group based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, and sexual orientation/gender identity).”

We believe that counter-speech, better speech, is one of the best ways to deal with hate speech. That’s the balance we’re trying to strike.

BP: In 2012, Google voluntarily blocked the Islamophobic video clip “Innocence of Muslims” in Egypt and Libya amid protests. Describe the events that unfolded. How do you think Google handled the situation?

RL: I was involved in those conversations, and we obviously took the situation very seriously. The decision came from the highest level of the company. Even though the video did not violate our community guidelines, we restricted access to it in Libya and Egypt on a temporary basis in response to the violence on the ground. We try to do the right thing, but it’s not always clear what that is. We reinstated access once the situation had calmed down a bit, then we added warning interstitials to alert users that the video was controversial.

YouTube is still blocked in Pakistan because we refused to block access to the video there, pointing to how difficult a situation this has been.

UPDATE: On Feb. 26, a U.S. appeals court ordered Google to remove the “Innocence of Muslims” clip due to a tenuous copyright claim. Google plans to fight the order.

BP: You mentioned that your team is focused on “countering” hate speech. How are you going about this and why?

RL: Recently we started developing projects that empower users to use counter-speech as a weapon against hate speech. We trained 150 community organizers to use YouTube to deliver counter extremist messages and worked with the Holocaust Museum to distinguish hateful speech from speech likely to incite violence so that we know what we are dealing with and can counteract it.

Even though some speech is very painful to hear, I’d rather know that this hatred exists and where it’s coming from than to block it. Censoring speech doesn’t make the hate go away, it just hides it.

BP: Online comments below stories and YouTube videos about religion are often riddled with hatred. Do you think this has something to do with perceived anonymity online?

RL: I’ve wondered myself why there are so many hateful comments about religion online. I know that religion is the hot button issue in many parts of the world. If you want to rile people up or bring them to violence, religion seems to be how you do it. I assume this is all wrapped up in people’s identities. If religion is at the core of someone’s identity I can see why they might react so strongly.

The role of anonymity is a hotly debated topic. Some say anonymity encourages such hatred. I see anonymous speech as being very valuable. In many countries, anonymous and pseudonymous speech allows users to argue while still keeping safe. Without anonymity, that speech probably wouldn’t occur.

For Google, it comes down to striking the right balance. There are examples where anonymity can encourage speech that an individual wouldn’t feel comfortable saying otherwise. On Google+ we want people to use their real names, because it’s kind of integral to the product, but we recognize there are people who have established pseudonyms online and allow that. You can’t expect Syrians posting about chemical abuses to use their real names given what’s happening there. We do allow them to use pseudonyms, which I think is very important.

BP: How do you think media sites should best moderate religious hate speech and hateful comments online, especially when religion comes into play?

RL: It’s not easy to do, and we don’t claim to have completely figured it out. Our approach has been community guidelines to ensure those platforms are places where real debate can occur. We don’t want them to just be platforms of dissemination for hateful content, because that’s not really debate. We want them to be platforms for free expression but also a place where people will be willing to engage. I think we’re onto something with this concept of counter-speech.

BP: Why did Google exclude religious groups in its Google for Nonprofits program at first, then one year later welcome them into the program?

RL: People tend to think Google’s got it all figured out all the time, like everything is cut-and-dried and we’re so smart. Others think we have nefarious motivations. The reality is that sometimes we change our minds or change programs if we feel like we didn’t get it right.

This was probably a resource issue. When we first developed Google for Nonprofits, we were using more restrictive guidelines. After a year, we expanded the program and decided to allow more organizations.

BP: Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers, is now Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist.” What’s up with the religious connotations in that title?

RL: I don’t think “evangelist” has religious connotations to the extent it once did. One of Vint’s roles is, to use another religiously loaded word, to “proselytize” about how powerful and valuable the Internet is. In developed parts of the world where internet access is ubiquitous, you don’t have to argue about its benefits for economic development and social advancement.

When I worked in Asia, it was striking how many governments and thought leaders had yet to crack that reality. I remember meeting with one Southeast Asian ambassador who closed the door and asked, “What is this Internet thing and why do I need to care about it?” Many people who understand the value of the net just want it but don’t fully understand why it’s important. That’s why Vint and my team are always talking about innovation, creativity and economic growth on a free and open net.