January 17, 2013, 12:52 PM — Google will decline requests for user information from totalitarian governments in Africa that seek to crack down on online communication.
"We get these requests all the time," said Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, speaking to reporters in Nairobi this week. "It is different in countries where we have servers and staff because they can be arrested and harassed. We are careful where we open offices and put our servers."
The number of Internet users in Africa has grown, backed by investments in telecoms infrastructure and the entry of multinational companies like Google. This has led to new challenges for governments interested in controlling information.
Schmidt spoke at a media briefing in Nairobi during a stop-over from his tour of North Korea. He was asked how Google would deal with requests totalitarian governments that want to censor online communication and requests from countries such as Kenya, which is fairly democratic, that seek to tame online hate speech.
"In general, I would say more speech as opposed to censorship. Google is highly opposed to hate speech and it's a different answer in a one-party system like China where we don't have an independent judiciary, but it's different here because Kenya has independent judiciary," he said.
The Ministry of Information and Communication in Kenya has been engaging citizens about awareness of hate speech and the legal implications of it ahead of the March 4 general elections.
"We don't want to cramp people's freedom of Speech, but at the same time there is a very thin line between freedom of speech and hate speech," said Bitange Ndemo, the permanent secretary in the Ministry. "Last week we evaluated the social media content and found statements that constituted opinions as well as hate speech. [With] any statement we say we must weigh the consequences, we must take responsibility.
Schmidt met with government officials, gave a lecture at Strathmore University, visited the mLab incubation center iHub, and a Maasai village in the outskirts of Nairobi, where Jared Cohen, head of Google Ideas spent part of his research time. Cohen was part of the visiting Google team.
Apart from the impressive rate of technology growth, Schmidt said Africa still faces infrastructure challenges for Internet access, part of which Google is helping solve with its Google proxy cache initiative, which has increased connectivity in Africa.