Google's board of directors has recommended that shareholders vote down a proposal requiring it to legally resist government censorship efforts and to notify users when the company is told by governments to censor search results.
The proposal was submitted by shareholders, including pension funds, that hold 486,617 shares of Google stock, a stake worth about $228m (£114m). It is due to be discussed at the company’s AGM next week.
Censorship has been a sore point for Google. The company – with its "don't be evil" corporate mantra - was widely criticised last year for launching a Chinese search engine that censored results. Chief executive Eric Schmidt defended the decision to launch the Google.cn search engine, saying 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 in Davos, Switzerland. "We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil."
The shareholders’ proposal argues that the freedom to access information on the internet is guaranteed by the UN 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 says, citing 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.
It sets out proposed policies for Google, aimed at protecting freedom of information on the internet. 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 not expected to be carried. Schmidt and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin together hold 66.2% of the company's total shareholder voting power, according to a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. All three are members of the board of directors, which has recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal.
The board did not offer a reason why shareholders should vote against the proposal.