Google’s Vint Cerf avoiding responsibility

Yesterday morning I was on my way into Lancaster and listening to the Today programme. Google’s ‘internet evangelist’ Vint Cerf was being interviewed by John Humphrys and the topic was ‘should the internet be regulated like other media’.1

Not surprisingly Vint Cerf thought not, but I was surprised how well he avoided actually saying so. John Humphrys is experienced and politicians fear him in these early morning interviews, but to be honest he was completely outclassed by Vint Cerf who sidestepped, avoided and generally never addressed the question.

Web 2.0 was the heart of the issue. With end-user content now dominating the internet do service providers such as YouTube (of course owned by Google) have any responsibility for the kinds of material hosted?

This was in the context of videos of ‘happy slappers’ and other violent attacks being posted, but more generally that whereas TV in many countries is limited in the kinds of material it can show, particularly early in the evening when children are more likely to be watching, is limited by a mixture of voluntary and satutory codes. Why not the internet?

Vint Cerf repeatedly re-iterated the same message “Google is law abiding” if content is not legal it is removed. Implicitly the message was “if it is not illegal it is OK”, but as I said he carefully avoided saying so.

The closest point to actually addressing the question was when John Humphrys suggested that technologies could be misused like research for atomic power being used for nuclear weapons (strange I thought it went the other way round?). Vent Cerf’s response was, the standard neutrality of technology stance, that the makers of roads were not responsible for car deaths, strip development … the same argument used by arms dealers, manufacturers of gas guzzling cars, and scientists in every repressive regime in recent history.

According to Cerf if you are a worried parent you need to buy good filtering software; the solution is at the edges of the net … and of course does not involve the likes of Google … who it appears from the context is at the centre?
Now there are very good arguments against regulation both ethical (freedom of expression) and practical (volume of material, international access). The disappointing, and worrying, aspect of this interview was that Google’s key public face was unwilling or unable to constructively enter the debate at all.

  1. “The 0810 Interview: Godfather of the Internet”, BBC4, Today Programme, Wednesday, 29th August 2007[back]