Google: The Big Tent – A Summary Account

On the 18th of May, Google in conjunction with Privacy International and Index on Censorship held the ‘Big Tent’ event, in Watford, London. This unique forum was attended by journalists, scholars, politicians and NGO representatives to discuss various hot issues surrounding the internet and society. The main areas explored included the role of technology in Middle Eastern revolutions, limits of free speech online, privacy laws with regard to online innovation and the place of technology and information access in solving conflicts.

Google’s Director of external relations EMEA, Peter Barron, gave the official welcome to the event by describing the idea behind the ‘Big Tent’ as a forum seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints and proceeded to invite the audience to the first session on privacy and innovation.

Writes Sally Kahiu…

Session 1: Privacy and innovation: Do we need tougher privacy laws or are we in danger of stifling innovation?

To kick start this session Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow engaged the panellists in a series of questions which touched on the use of social media and the transparency of user data while at the same time securing privacy for online users. The panellists in this session were as follows; Google’s Director of Privacy Product and Engineering, Alma Whitten, who explained the importance of a framework that grants the users control over their own data. Peter Bazalgette Chairman of MirriAd, who tabled the issues faced when considering how privacy laws might indeed stifle innovation online and Simon Davies (Privacy International) who reiterated that users’ data comes first and it was up to internet companies to respect and protect this them.

Keynote Speech: Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt, now Executive Chairman at Google who gave the first keynote speech also highlighted the theme of Privacy and Innovation. Against strict privacy regulations, he claimed, individual user data could be used to enhance their experiences online by delivering more personalised content right to the specific users. However, it was acknowledged that this could lead to problems of spam. Schmidt also suggested that Google wouldn’t develop a database to recognise individual users as it might compromise their privacy, although he did think that such a system was now possible given recent technological developments. Prior news that Facebook, Twitter and Google were set to oppose law that would protect users’ privacy led to a heated discussion between audience members and Schmidt.

The Egyptian online revolution – One Man’s story

Egyptian Internet activist, Wael Ghonim, followed the keynote address with a moving and engaging account of the Tahrir square revolution and how the internet played a key role leading up to its success. He took the opportunity to clarify statements carried by the media about the role of technology in the ‘Egyptian revolution’, saying that the Internet was only one of the tools used to achieve the goal. He stressed that the people’s struggle should not be undermined by crediting the overall success to technology. Google, Facebook, or Twitter were said to have nothing to do with spreading democracy in the Middle East. He also said that it was the first revolution that was pre-announced, referring to the fact that the protest on the 25th of January was published on Facebook weeks in advance.

Keynote Speech: Rt. Hon Jeremy Hunt MP

The final keynote speaker was the MP Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. By reiterating an anecdote of how the sewage system was built in London and how it eventually became a vital part of every household in the country, he emphasized on the need for the internet to grow in vitality in the same fashion. He said that high capacity broadband with plans for expansion in the future is needed to host internet demands for the growing population.

Hunt pointed out two important aspects of technology that were necessary to take the country into the next step of development; these are ‘speed’ and ‘mobility’. He outlined the most significant problem facing Internet users in the UK as the lack of speed. The UK was currently the 26th in terms of fast broadband connection in the world according to his statistics, and he believed that super-fast connection was the answer. He also made brief comments on the recent media frenzy over the use of Twitter to break super-injunctions, he said, “technology has made a bit of an ass of the law.” Interpretation of the Human Rights law, he said, should also be revisited so that it’s not prone to abuse.

Session 2: What are the limits of free speech online?

This session’s moderator Krishnan Guru-Murthy (Channel 4 News) started off by introducing key controversial issues facing the problematic definition of “free speech” online. Debating with the other panellists, David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, stated that we should be very wary of limiting free speech online because it borders on setting precedence for authoritarian regulatory pattern in the West.

In tandem with Evgeny Morozov’s (2011) recent work on authoritarian regimes and the Internet (whose essay was included in the Journal Index on Censorship handed out to the audience before the event), Drummond feared the lessons that authoritarian regimes have learned from the recent events in the North Africa and Middle East is that they have to crack down even more on free speech online.

Justine Roberts (Mumsnet) focused on free speech with regard to how it affects families. She pointed out the thin line between education and over exposure of young children who have in turn become victims of child pornography online. She however stressed on the over dependence of parents to rely on state to “raise” their children and urged them to be more responsible by being vigilant of what their children do online and mostly educate them on online safety.

Stop the war: Can access to information help prevent conflict?

The event culminated in a much anticipated discussion on the role technology continues to play in conflicts in war torn countries all over the world. The panellists for this session included Jon Gosier of Ushahidi, Jared Cohen, who previously served as a close advisor to the US Secretary of State and now works for Google, Brian Lapping of PAX and UNOSAT’s Lars Bromley.

Cohen emphasized the rapid technological development and its impact all over the world by giving an anecdote of how militias in the rural areas of the Middle East use mobile money transfer to carry out their transactions, illustrating the world wide penetration of Internet. Other speakers including Jon Gossier and Brian Lapping spoke about the respective experiences in the Middle East and Africa, highlighting the use of technology to prevent conflict. Lars Bromley educated the audience of the continual upgrade of new technologies being used to get real time information during conflicts especially in places where reporters cannot reach due to the volatility of such situations.

The event came to an end with a final note from Peter Barron who thanked all those in attendance for their worthy participation. The event was graced by academics and scholars from technology and media fields as well as other renowned stakeholders in both these fields.

With thanks to Sally Kahiu on the MA in Global Media and Communications.

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