Google Does Diplomatic Dance to Keep Content Online

Article excerpt

When Thailand blocked Google Inc.'s YouTube Web site last year, the company dispatched deputy general counsel Nicole Wong to help restore access. In Bangkok, a sea of yellow shirts stunned her.

It was a Monday, when Thais wear yellow to honor King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Seeing their reverence, Wong says she grasped why officials reacted so strongly to a video blending a picture of Bhumibol with graffiti -- an image that ran afoul of a law against insulting the 80-year-old monarch. Google agreed to block the clip in Thailand while leaving it available elsewhere, and YouTube returned to Thai computers.

Welcome to the culture clashes that Google and other American Internet companies are navigating from Thailand to Turkey and China to Pakistan. The owner of the world's most popular online search and video sites is learning to live with countries that "don't share the same baseline" about the Web, Wong, 39, says in an interview at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. These governments ban objectionable material because they "don't know how else to control it."

The Internet superpower's corporate diplomacy is establishing far- reaching practices to keep online content, and advertising dollars, flowing across borders. Google's ambassadors, lobbyists and lawyers, are traveling the globe to gauge what governments will tolerate -- and showing a readiness to bend America's cherished belief in free expression.

"The notion that companies chartered in the United States do things in other countries they would never dream of doing in the United States is discomforting, obviously," says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "I think, though, this is the reality of doing business in a multinational environment, joined by a common technological network, which is the Internet."

China, with an estimated 230 million people online, has been at the center of the Web freedom controversy, especially since rival Yahoo! Inc. turned over e-mails and other information to the Chinese government in 2006, leading to the imprisonment of journalist Shi Tao and writer Wang Xiaoning.

"While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," then-House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos told Yahoo executives during a 2007 hearing.

Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., apologized, provided financial support to the prisoners' families and asked the United States to discuss their plight with China. …