Watching the Web

An Argentinian court has instructed Google to restrict anti-Semitic searches and content.

webwatchers_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ON MAY 17, CIVIL COURT No. 46 of Buenos Aires instructed Internet giant Google to eliminate anti- Semitic search suggestions from their Argentinian browsers. The precautionary measure was handed down in response to a petition presented by DAIA, a political umbrella organization for Argentinian Jewish groups, in the framework of a class action suit brought on behalf of the entire Jewish community, which argued that these searches lead users to anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial sites.
The petition noted that Google was providing search results for 76 websites that DAIA regarded as “highly discriminatory.” Accepting this position, Judge Carlos Molina Portela ordered Google to remove those sites from its index, prevent its algorithms from offering 13 additional suggestive search possibilities, and refrain from placing advertising on another 22 sites, all of which contain anti-Semitic language and promote Holocaust denial.
The petition was based on the work of the Observatorio Web (“Web Observatory”), a cooperative project by DAIA; the Latin American Jewish Congress (a chapter of the World Jewish Congress); and AMIA, the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. Stemming from a growing concern over anti- Semitic messages, the project was founded in March 2010 to combat all forms of discrimination on the Web.
“We have been working with industry leaders such as Yahoo, Mercado Libre, Taringa, Psicofxp and VXV, and INADI [the Argentinian government agency working against discrimination] to defend the Internet as a space for freedom of expression, without prejudice or discrimination,” project director Ariel Seidler tells The Jerusalem Report.
“During 2010 we had meetings with Google,” Seidler continues. “Google argued that it was a matter for the courts to decide regarding the removal of the sites from their indexes. We also talked about videos from YouTube and blogs with highly discriminatory content, but they decided not to remove them.”
A summary research report by ObservatorioWeb titled “The Growth of Websites that Attack Communities” was published in “Clarin,” Argentina’s most widelyread newspaper, on December 27, 2010. In response, Google posted the following on its blog for Latin America: “There is much content that can be disturbing or that may seem objectionable, but… does not violate our criteria of freedom of speech. Google is committed and works in every country in which it has a presence, including Argentina, to prevent the proliferation of violent or racist content. This will not impede groups or organizations that wish for different policies or have more restrictive criteria of freedom of speech.”
As a result, the group petitioned the courts.
Judge Portela accepted the petitioners’ position that the search engine led directly to sites that clearly defy international and domestic human rights and anti-discrimination legislation due to their anti-Semitic tone or attempts at Holocaust denial.
Google Argentina responded to a query from The Report by saying, “As this is a legal matter, we will not comment on it. However, Google does not endorse hate speech.”
Similarly, a Google spokesman in Israel said the company “rarely comments on specific judicial cases.”
WHILE THIS IS NOT THE FIRST time Google has been forced to remove anti-Semitic material from its websites in various countries, the Argentinian court decision does appear to be a legal precedent.
“This is the first time Google has been forced to remove material from search results in response to a court order,” Andre Oboler, an Australia-based computer scientist and social media expert who watches for anti-Semitic content on the World Wide Web for the Zionist Federation of Australia, tells The Report. “It is, however, not the first time Google has removed anti-Semitic content from its search results. Sites like Jew Watch have been removed from Google’s French and German versions for years, but this was the result of grassroots pressure.”
Oboler tells The Report that since the early 1990s, “Google has made a point of making its results automated and has resisted pressure to manually interfere with them.”
However, in January 2011, several news agencies reported that the EU was investigating the company in light of allegations that Google was manipulating the outcome of its searches to favor heavy advertisers, a sign that not all is automatic. It may be no coincidence that the first formal legal attempt to restrict anti-Semitic content on the Web was made in Argentina.
While Jews escaping persecution in Europe found a home there before World War II, an unknown number of Nazi war criminals also found refuge in the country afterward.
Jewish officials applauded the court decision. Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, tells The Report that, “in general” he opposes the limitation of free speech, but then adds, “We defend freedom of expression as a supreme value that only the law can limit. In this case, the judge decided that the content of Google promotes anti-Semitism. In many countries, including the Republic of Argentina, this is a crime.”
In contrast, Cynthia Wong, director of the Washington, DC-based Global Internet Freedom Project, Center for Democracy & Technology, declared in a prepared statement: “At the end of the day, enlisting companies to become greater gatekeepers on content online really does shrink the range of speech that we can access…. It’s dangerous to try to shut down speech, because you don’t get that kind of robust public debate about what should or should not be acceptable in a democratic society.”
But web expert Oboler says efforts must go beyond the companies themselves. “I think this is a good move by the [Argentinian] court, which must ultimately enforce the law, and for Argentina, which clearly has effective laws against online hate,” he explains. “Ultimately it is up to national governments and not corporations to decide the protection given to citizens and the resulting limits on free speech.”
EVEN PRIOR TO THE RULING, Argentine media professionals had already established the Forum of Journalism of Argentina (FOPEA), dedicated to guaranteeing free speech, transparency and free access to public information.
Dr. Miguel Julio Rodriguez Villafañe, a professor of law and former judge, acts as a consultant to the forum. “While the right to information occupies a privileged place among basic rights, it must be remembered that right is not absolute,” he tells The Report.
With regard to limitations on the right to freedom of expression, says Villafane, it is necessary to refer to international treaties dealing with racial or religious hatred, including, for example, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the American Convention on Human Rights, the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, among others. These conventions, to which Argentina is a signatory, he says, provide the basis for the Argentine judge’s decision to issue the injunction against Google.
Villafañe, who also is president of the Iberoamerican Association of Rights of Information and Communication (AIDIC), is known as a militant defender of freedom of speech. He also was the judge presiding over the extradition to Germany of Josef Schwammberger, a Nazi war criminal captured in Argentina, in November 1987. “I’m in favor of freedom of speech and also against racism,” he concludes.
Coincidentally, May 17 was also World Internet Day, marked in Argentina with large online events promoting the commercial and educational use of the Web. “Internet is also used as a channel for the dissemination of discriminatory ideas. We work to make it a space of free communication – free from discrimination,” concludes the Latin American Jewish Congress’s Epelman.