Google chief slams Gulf Twitter-related detentions

Senior exec at internet giant says jail sentences could lead to violent protests in region
By Courtney Trenwith
Wed 19 Jun 2013 08:09 AM

Jailing Arab Twitter users could lead to greater physical action such as violent protests, a Google executive has told Arabian Business in an exclusive interview.

Ross LaJeunesse, global head of Google's Freedom Expression project, said the silencing of controversial social media comments would only lead to boiled up tensions that would eventually need to be released.

"I see freedom of expression as a release valve: people have those thoughts, people have those concerns, they want to articulate them and when a government takes an approach (such as jailing dissidents), what you're really doing is forcing those concerns and debate internally, it doesn't go away," LaJeunesse said during an interview on the sidelines of the Freedom Online conference in Tunis.

"So in many ways, letting people articulate them and debate them and have conversations about them is very healthy for society.

"I don't think any interest is served when you say, 'no, you can't speak'."

Preventing freedom of expression online could backfire with street rallies and protests, he said.

"It's absolutely possible," LaJeunesse said.

"It also drives it underground."

Dozens of social media users have been jailed in states such as Kuwait and Bahrain for posting comments on sites such as Twitter and blogs that have been deemed defamatory, blasphemous or insulting to the Emir.

A Tunisian rapper also was sentenced to two years jail this week for a song that contained lyrics about killing the police.

In one of the most high profile cases, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youseff, who has become the most watched Arab on YouTube since that country's 2011 revolution, was arrested over his political satire show.

Saudis Arabia's conservative Islamic leaders also have attempted to shutdown mor censor sites such as Twitter on the basis that they are tools to stir social unrest and inspire immoral discussions.

LaJeunesse said governments that stifled freedom of speech online had failed to come to terms with the new era of Internet communication.

"Those governments are taking the approach of old world media, which they're very accustomed to controlling," he said.

"They're trying to apply those rules and laws to the Internet and it really doesn't work.

"All it does is increase the pressure on people."

LaJeunesse said during the most recent meeting of the International Telecommunications Union, which includes government representatives of more than 190 countries, more than 80 states voted against a proposal to add the Internet to the list of telecommunications covered by the organisation's policy, an indication they were unwilling to move into the 21st century.

A Gulf state also proposed a policy that would have given states the right to demand content they didn't like to be removed from not only websites in their own country but globally. The proposal was voted down.

La Jeunesse said human rights were at the heart of the concern, but privacy activists and companies such as Google had to take a different tact - usually economical - when dealing with some governments, including those in the Gulf.

"In some parts of the world, the human rights argument doesn't get you very far," he said.

"You don't shy away from the truth but you focus on the economic development. (You say) 'this is how you use the Internet to get (economic development); you can't have economic development while you stifle free speech'."

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