Google urges shareholders to permit censorship

Proposal would require Google to notify users when governments require it to censor search results

Google's board of directors has recommended shareholders next week vote down a proposal that would require the company to legally resist government censorship efforts and to notify users when the company is required by governments to censor search results.

The proposal was submitted by New York City's Office of the Comptroller, which helps oversee the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System, the New York City Police Pension Fund, and the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund, and is a custodian of the New York City Board of Education Retirement System.

Combined, these funds hold 486,617 shares of Google stock, a stake worth about $228.2 million.

Censorship has been a sore point for Google. The company -- which uses "don't be evil" as its corporate mantra -- was widely criticized last year for launching a Chinese search engine that censored results. defense of the company's decision to launch the search engine, Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said the company had weighed the pros and cons of censorship.

"We concluded that although we weren't wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all," Schmidt said, speaking at the 2006 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. "We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil."

The Office of the Comptroller's proposal argues that the freedom to access information on the Internet is guaranteed by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"Technology companies in the United States such as Google, that operate in countries controlled by authoritarian governments have an obligation to comply with the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights," the proposal said, naming Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam as countries where governments restrict access to Internet content.

To protect the freedom to access information on the Internet, the proposal sets out six policies for Google to implement. These include: not hosting user data in countries where political speech can be considered a crime; not engaging in proactive censorship; using legal means to avoid censorship and only censoring information when required by legally binding procedures; informing users when agreeing to a government censorship request; educating users about Google's data retention policies; and making public information about all legal censorship requests that Google complies with.

The proposal is unlikely to pass.

Schmidt and founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin together hold 66.2 percent of Google's total shareholder voting power, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing. All three are members of the board of directors, which has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal at the company's annual meeting on May 10.

Google's board of directors did not offer an explanation for why shareholders should vote against the proposal.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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