Google and the Pedophiles

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It doesn't have the cachet or name recognition of Myspace or Facebook, but in Brazil, Google's relationship site Orkut boasts a coverage that its more celebrated rivals cannot match. Almost half of Brazil's 32 million internet users have a profile on Orkut. Go to any cyber café in Rio de Janiero or Sao Paulo and wired youngsters will be leaving messages for friends, checking out potential dates and surfing through hundreds of thousands of communities, from the spiritual ("We love God"; 254,072 members), intellectual ("Addicted to books"; 46, 203 members) and physical ("I've got a big butt, what about it?"; 62,673 members).

But Brazilian prosecutors say that pedophiles, anti-Semites and racists are also using Orkut to peddle less innocuous messages. And they accuse Google of protecting them by balking at revealing the IP addresses and other information that could help law enforcement track them down. A judge last week gave Google 15 days to hand over the incriminating data or face a daily fine equal to $900,000. "Making it easier for those Brazilians who use anonymity of Orkut to commit crimes of child pornography and racism reflects a profound disrespect for national sovereignty," Judge José Marcos Lunardelli said in last week's ruling. "Brazilian law is applicable here."

Google argued otherwise, saying that because the information on Orkut is stored on U.S. servers, its Brazilian subsidiary has no access to it and thus cannot hand it over. The company asked prosecutors to withdraw the summons against Google Brasil and address new ones to parent company Google Inc. Only then, Google officials said, would the company hand over incriminating data, as it has done in more than 70 similar cases elsewhere in the world.

Brazilian authorities complied and rewrote the court orders, and Google now says it will hand over the data on pedophiles and other criminals. But Google's argument infuriated Brazilians, who charged the company was putting bureaucratic niceties in the way of tracking down pedophiles and racists. To Internet watchdogs, however, the company stood up for the important principle of establishing international norms on what information global Internet companies should hand over to local authorities and what procedures both sides must follow.

"I think Google's decision to make the legal procedures go through the American justice system is a good thing, not because of Brazil but because of the world," said Julien Pain, director of the Internet freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders. "This way, if you make a request to Google in the U.S., the request can be supervised by American justice. This kind of procedure may seem useless in the case of Brazil, which is a democracy and respects human rights. But it's crucial when Google has to deal with repressive regimes. If a Chinese or a Syrian judge asks information about a dissident or a journalist, it's important that Google could say no."

Google denies it is consciously trying to set a precedent, and, recognizing that the issue of child porn is a sensitive one, is anxious to play down the controversy. However, experts praise the company for taking a more principled stance than some of its rivals have. According to a Human Rights Watch report issued last month, Yahoo voluntarily handed over incriminating info that led to the arrest of four Chinese dissidents; Microsoft censored searches and deleted blogs in China; and Skype configured its Chinese software to censor certain words in its chat function.

"You could argue Google is wrong in protecting child pornographers, but maybe they are not being driven by the fear of bad PR, but rather by what they think is right," said Esther Dyson, the former chairperson of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers who now writes a blog on developing technologies. "The next time the Brazilian authorities say we want e-mail addresses for some reason other than child porn, Google will have a much stronger position, because they have established, both here and in the U.S., that they do not blindly accede to government requests."

Now the question is whether other governments and Internet giants are watching.