Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)


1 APRIL 2008

  Q280  Rosemary McKenna: Would you support the Byron Review's recommendation for an independently monitored code of practice on the moderation of user-generated content, and will you modify your terms and guidelines accordingly?

  Mr Walker: We would support the development of a voluntary code of practice. We would support the notion of moderation in the sense of working to make sure that inappropriate content, once identified, is promptly removed. We lead the industry in how quickly we remove that content. We would certainly be open to a discussion on our terms of service and content which have continued to evolve. I would go back to the point that the service has only been in existence for two or three years and those terms have evolved over the course of its history. As I mentioned before, we are looking at the possibility of different approaches in different circumstances around the world.

  Q281  Rosemary McKenna: Do you tell people that if they upload videos of others committing crimes then they too risk criminal conviction?

  Mr Walker: We prohibit anything that is deemed to be hate speech, that is deemed to be graphic and gratuitous violence and anything that is humiliating or bullying or otherwise negative. I would have to go back to see if we specifically call out the risk of criminal prosecution in an aiding and abetting context.

  Q282  Mr Sanders: When somebody signs up to YouTube they are confronted with the terms and conditions and you have to scroll through thousands and thousands of legalese words. I suspect most people scroll to the bottom, tick the box and off they go because they want to get going. Surely you could do more. You could have a series of questions that confront people and say, "Are you aware that if you upload X you will be liable to prosecution, yes or no? If you do this [...]," and so you make the process of signing up almost like one of those learning programmes where you go through a series of questions. You could do that, could you not?

  Mr Walker: It is a classic question of online consumer services. There is a desire on the one hand to cover a wide variety of potential risks and concerns and problems and a desire on the other to make something short enough that people will actually read it. We have this issue with our privacy policy, for example, to describe accurately all the things that are done with users' information, to benefit them and to customize services. It is a very long document. The concern has been that the longer you make it the less people will read it. We try and balance those two considerations by making it not as legalistic as some and I am sure we could always do better, but we do go back regularly and try to shorten that document to make it more user-friendly and more likely that people will read it. There would be an infinite number of boxes that could be ticked around a wide variety of different things. Our ultimate question is to what degree does the user understand their role and responsibility online and to encourage them to do the right thing and not violate the terms. Where they do violate the terms we respond very quickly and remove the offending content and let them know in no certain terms that their accounts will be violated if they do it again.

  Q283  Mr Sanders: Everybody has ticked the box to say they have read and understood the terms and conditions, but I doubt anybody has done a study to test whether they really have read and understood the terms and conditions. It would not be that difficult to put in, on a rota basis, some extra questions. They do not need to be the same questions to everybody, but just some extra questions in there that really make it clear that there could be a penalty for misusing the system. That would offer that little bit of extra protection at relatively no loss to yourselves. Why do you not do it?

  Mr Walker: It is certainly a fair concern. I do not want to get into the micromanagement of product design because the people back in Mountain View would not be happy if I did. The tension would be between a form that had lots of boxes that you needed to check all the way down. There is a temptation, if you give them 20 different boxes to check, to say, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes," all the way down.

  Q284  Mr Sanders: That is not what I am saying.

  Mr Walker: I understand. That is on one side. There may be some enhanced ways of making our terms of service more visible or highlighting particular concerns within them. Each different constituency has a different concern. When I speak with representatives from the privacy agencies and data protection agencies they tell me they would like us to put more emphasis on the privacy protection sites of our materials. The copyright industry would like us to put more emphasis on the risks of infringing copyright. Certainly protecting children is a paramount concern and we need to make sure that that is highlighted appropriately. There are a number of others. We try and calibrate and harmonize all these different concerns. We think of our terms and our approach to our terms as a work in progress. I take the point. It is something that I will study when I get back to the United States to see if there are additional things we can do. At the end of the day, the question is, how do we really reach the user in a tangible, visible way? We have a lot of material on-site, tutorials and other kinds of educational material that we have developed in some of these areas and we may be able to do more in this area as well.

  Q285  Mr Evans: You have talked about this struggle between the freedom of speech on the one hand and protecting youngsters on the other. Let us go back to China for a second. You have got the battle between the freedom of speech and the protection of a government which regularly violates human rights. Should that not be an easy one for Google to sort out? You are on the side of freedom of speech, surely.

  Mr Walker: We are on the side of freedom of speech and the goal is to maximize freedom of speech and access to information around the world. It is a harder question to say how best one does that. In China and in a number of other governments around the world, which are not as democratic as we would like, you have to consider whether you serve that goal better by absenting yourself completely from the country and not making that service available to the citizens of the country or by trying to engage in a constructive way and push the boundaries of what is acceptable so that again more information is available on your service than would be on contending services. We balance the desire to be a socially responsible company in many areas with the desire for free speech. We are working constantly on the copyright side. It is a very hard challenge because you have 200 plus countries around the world each with their own sets of laws and their unique concerns. I alluded to some of these earlier on. It is in some measure not for us to pick and choose which laws we like and which we do not. On the other hand, at the margins there are certainly situations where human rights or other concerns are such that we have a difficult time. Another example would be a recent situation involving a video on YouTube which involves someone being beaten unmercifully—shocking, horrible stuff. We took it down immediately only to discover it was actually posted by a well-known Egyptian human rights blogger who had raised concern in his blog about Egyptian police brutality. Not being able to find a place on his blog to host a video, he had cross-linked to do it on YouTube. I suspect it was evidence in support of his concern about police brutality and abuses in violation of the laws of Egypt. We have situations in which one country is concerned about the citizens of another country viewing material in a way that might create a danger to the citizens of the first country, so we have extra-territorial or extra-jurisdictional issues that are raised. It is a phenomenally complicated set of issues and we do our best to work both in a public and on a private basis with governments around the world to try and get to a position of maximum free speech everywhere we can.

  Q286  Mr Evans: I am just wondering how best you serve the people of China when you put in Tiananmen Square or Falun Gong into your search engine and it throws up nothing because the Chinese authorities do not want that to happen.

  Mr Walker: We do disclose to our users that the government has edited the search results effectively and there is available on our side a link to our dot-com results. A user in China, if they can get through the Chinese government's own "Great Firewall", will have access to our unfiltered comprehensive results. I recognise the issue.

  Q287  Mr Evans: How do you make these decisions? Do you have a group of people who sit down and say, "China is worth $100 million to us so let's buckle a little bit"?

  Mr Walker: I can candidly say that I have been in on a number of conversations and never have I heard a discussion about how much money we stand to make from a given country. It is always, and I think legitimately, a balance in terms of trying to promote free expression or the free exchange of ideas while maintaining our ability to operate in-country and keep our people in country safe from a rampaging mob, which we have seen, or situations where our country managers have been hauled in to police departments or otherwise threatened.

  Q288  Mr Evans: Do you think the fact that you have buckled to the Chinese authorities has done any damage to the reputation of Google?

  Mr Walker: I would not describe it as having buckled. I think it is a complicated area. There are those who have a view of the world that would have us essentially keep our hands clean of any involvement in any government that they did not like around the world. It has not been our approach. We have tried to continue to maintain our message of free speech. We have tried to minimise the possibility that user information would be disclosed to governments that would use it for ends that we would not approve of. At the same time, we have a policy of cooperating with law enforcement around the world and many government requests, even from governments that may have human rights issues, are in fact legitimate. There are situations involving child pornography or bank robbery or murder in every country around the world. Balancing those two things is another set of issues we wrestle with.

  Q289  Mr Evans: Have the Chinese authorities ever asked Google to do certain things and you have turned round and said, "No, we're not going to do that"?

  Mr Walker: The YouTube example would be one most recently.

  Q290  Mr Evans: That one is not so clear because I think the Chinese authorities wanted footage of the rioters shown on television to show the Chinese people that these are hideous people who are damaging property. The Chinese people were quite happy to see video footage of that.

  Mr Walker: I am not clear on that. They did block, for example, Reuters' and the BBC's accounts of the rioting that was going on. We have a team of people in China who work on exactly these issues and push back against requests from the Chinese government to try and minimise the scope and duration and in some cases, as with the recent situation, they simply do not filter it.

  Q291  Mr Evans: You negotiate with them, but if the Chinese turn round and say, "No, we want this off," then it has to come off otherwise they will just block you completely.

  Mr Walker: Within the site, the site that is limited now to China as to search, that is correct. It is a condition of doing business in the country that we comply with the laws of the country. That is the difficult issue that we wrestle with. At the same time, we try and minimise it. Compared to any other search engine out there we provide more information. We filter less at the request of the Chinese government than anyone else out there. We think that brings a benefit to the people of China. If they want to, if they are interested in doing so, they have access, to the maximum extent we can provide it, to the global site.

  Q292  Mr Evans: If it was Zimbabwe and Mugabe's hideous regime asked you to remove certain things surely you would tell them to get lost, would you not?

  Mr Walker: It would depend at some level on what the request was. If it was for child pornography, I think we would probably honour that globally. If it was politically sensitive material, that is a much harder question. We do not have offices in Zimbabwe. We do not have, to the best of my knowledge, a site targeted at Zimbabwe. In fact, as you will see if you go to YouTube or some of the search sites, a lot of information coming out of Zimbabwe about the progress of the election, concerns about potential election rigging and the like. It has been a wonderful channel for that sort of information. In Venezuela within the last year, when the Chavez administration shut down various television stations, several of those stations turned around and started broadcasting on YouTube as an alternative way of providing information to the citizens of Venezuela. It is an important back and forth that we look at continually.

  Q293  Mr Evans: I suspect that the difference is China is huge, it is very powerful and there is a lot of money there. Maybe Zimbabwe is not so clever and clearly very poor. Google, like a lot of countries, probably takes a different attitude to China than they would to other countries that violate human rights.

  Mr Walker: It is a challenging game to sit down and assess the various criteria one would apply to a different country with regard to its overall level of democracy, level of transparency, independence of its judiciary, tolerance for civil expression and then, taking all that into account and the question of whether or not we have people in harm's way in-country, what is the particular nature of the request that is being made? Is it for child pornography? Is it for something that we genuinely recognise as criminal? Is it for defamation, which might well be recognised as criminal or at least a civil wrong in the United Kingdom or in Europe? What if it is defamation of a political figure? What if it is defamation of a dead person, Kemal Ataturk or Mahatma Gandhi, which in the United States would not be defamation at all but certainly is defamation in those countries? We try and bring all of those factors to bear in the analysis of these issues.

  Q294  Mr Evans: At what level in the company are these decisions made? Is it one person or is it a group of people that make these decisions? Are they different people for different countries?

  Mr Walker: Right now our Executive Management Group, which is the very senior people in the company, has reviewed several of these issues. There is a woman on my staff who we have christened "the decider" who is involved in reviewing a variety of these things around the world. We have policy teams, corporate communication teams and people on the ground involved because these are close issues. There are different points of view even within the company as to the right approach. In most cases we are able to reach consensus internally. In some cases we have escalated them to the senior management of the company for decisions as to what to do.

  Q295  Philip Davies: Could I give you a real life example of some of the things that people have been saying earlier on today about some of the content? It is a paper you might not have come across, but as it is my local paper it is the most important paper in the country and that is the Bradford Telegraph & Argus. On the front cover you will see video nasties with pictures of Buttershaw School fights and Rhodesway Royal Rumble bitch fight 1 and bitch fight 2 all appearing on YouTube. Do you accept that this kind of gratuitous violence happens partly because people want to put it up on YouTube and that without YouTube some of these things would not happen?

  Mr Walker: I think you are right that there is a risk that any new form of communication often times gets adopted first by the youngest people in that community and can be used for many good things and for some bad things. Gratuitous violence is against our policy so we try and remove it very quickly. It is typically taken down in a number of minutes where it is flagged. It is a concern. It is something we work very hard on.

  Q296  Philip Davies: You say you take it down very quickly. How long does it take for you to remove an item that is inappropriate like that?

  Mr Walker: Once flagged, more than 50% of that material is removed within half an hour. A large majority of it is removed within an hour. In the longest cases it is one to two days for materials that are harder to identify or figure out whether or not it is a documentary or it is promoting or glorifying violence.

  Q297  Philip Davies: Do you not think that is slightly lax, that once flagged you say you will take things down as quickly as possible? Do you not think that you have a duty, given that it is your site, to have people monitoring what is going on there and proactively taking things down like this, which are completely inappropriate and I think everybody would agree is totally unacceptable, rather than waiting for somebody somewhere to flag it up when they are thinking, "I don't need to flag it up because surely somebody at YouTube is going to be looking out for this and taking it down"?

  Mr Walker: The community does very actively flag. We get hundreds of thousands of flags every day. The larger question you raise is what is the model of the Internet? Is it more like broadcast television or a newspaper? Is it more like the telephone system, a communication platform that is used for one-to-one or a few-to-few kinds of communications? It clearly has aspects of both. It would be hard to have the rules of television or the requirement of impartiality applied to YouTube. We have this "long tail" problem where there is an awful lot of content. Whether it is on YouTube, Blogger or MySpace, the notion of having somebody pre-clearing your content before you posted it to a MySpace account or to a Bebo account or pre-clearing a blog which you were going to write before you are allowed to publish it on the Internet because it might have offensive content in it has not been the way the Internet has worked. Looking at the volume of material we have uploaded just on YouTube, it is hundreds of thousands of video clips in a day. When you add in all these other services it is in the millions. The effective way of doing it has been to be responsive to problems, to respond very quickly to problems and remove them. Going back to your earlier notion of media literacy, it is to make sure people understand that there will be stupid things posted; there will be misuses and abuses of the platform in the same way that there is graffiti scrawled on school walls. You learn to disregard it, to recognise it is inappropriate. Parents work with children to make sure that they are viewing things that are age appropriate for them and they know how to deal with the challenges and the risks of the Internet as they would with the risks of a school or a park.

  Q298  Philip Davies: It is one thing for stupid things to be put on, but it is another thing if you are a young kid at school and you have been beaten and punched and kicked just so that somebody can get some pleasure by putting it up on your site. I was not quite sure from your answer whether or not you employ teams of people or use some kind of system to flag up to yourselves anything that is inappropriate so that you can proactively take it out?

  Mr Walker: It is a mix. Primarily it is the three-legged stool I referred to earlier. First of all, it is community flagging. Those flags are quickly reviewed by a human team of reviewers and there is some automation at the back end to make sure that once posted something does not get reposted. That automation then comes back to the front end again. If you are posting something that has previously been pulled down, that would be blocked initially and will never go up. We are working on additional software tools to identify material such as pornography and prohibit it on the site. If we can recognise that and hold it until it can be reviewed, that is something that we continue to look for.

  Q299  Philip Davies: How many people do you employ to monitor what is going on? You have said that you get hundreds of thousands of things a day being put on there. How many people do you employ to monitor what gets put up there?

  Mr Walker: It is a variety of different teams that are working on it. Our primary focus is on the tools and the development of something that facilitates what I think is actually the industry leading responsiveness on the speed of review. If we are reviewing more than 50% of the things within half an hour, the large majority within an hour, the queues are short. The challenge is not so much the review teams but in making sure that we have identified the things quickly. It comes back to the earlier point that was made about how to enhance community flagging. How do we enhance that process and potentially empower the community itself to be able to identify and remove material and suspend the appearance of material pending review?

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