A Free Speech Playbook for American Companies Doing Business Overseas

by on December 10, 2007 · 4 comments

Do U.S. Internet companies "betray free speech"? A recent New York Times editorial believes so, and calls out Yahoo in particular for having a "gallingly backward understanding of the value of free expression." But the editorial missed the point, as my colleague Steve DelBianco spelled out in a letter-to-the-editor this past weekend:

Leading Internet companies want to do everything possible to
protect their customers, and several are working with human rights advocates to
develop ways to more effectively push back on the demands of repressive
regimes.

Despite your blithe assertion, however, these companies need
to abide by the laws of the land. These companies worry not only about
customers going to jail but also their own employees. For example, the head of
eBay India was arrested when a user posted an objectionable video to an eBay site.

The real question is as Steve asks: In a China
with no American content or online services, will the goals of free speech and
civil rights be better served
? The answer should be an obvious and emphatic "No!"

We really don’t want our companies to get up and leave. Rather, we need a "playbook" of realistic
tactics online companies can use to effectively push back on government
demands for removing content or revealing user information.

I’ve been told that the Center for Democracy and
Technology is working on this along with Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, and
free expression advocates like Amnesty International.

The playbook idea was discussed at the United
Nations Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro last month. In
sports terms (soccer) it’d go something like this: The soccer coach is
the provider of online services like email, hosting, blogs, and social
networking sites. The players are the customers and users trying to
express themselves while living in a particular country. The referees
represent the government. Steve, who was at the Forum, discusses the playbook analogy as follows: 

Naturally, the coach wants his players to be aggressive and play with abandon, but not to provoke a whistle or a red card. But
it’s tough to know how or when these referees will make unpredictable
judgment calls for things like dangerous play or persistent
infringement. And these referees have the power to shut-down the entire game if players are showing too much ‘free expression’.

The principles discussed on our panel are like a playbook to help a
coach step-in and aggressively argue a referee’s call, to appeal a
player suspension, or even move the game to another field. There’s even
a section of this playbook on how to lobby for changes to the rules of
the game.

It’s
always best to be in the game than to be on the sidelines, but that
doesn’t mean that the rules of the game shouldn’t be changed.

  • http://mcgath.blogspot.com Gary McGath

    China will still have “American content” whether or not American businesses are operating in China. The alternative you suggest is a false one.

    While American companies have a business presence in China, and employees who are in the country, they’re subject to extortion of information about dissidents. Lobbying for changes isn’t going to help the immediate situation. If a company faces the choice between helping to violate the rights of dissidents and pulling out of a country, its moral obligation is to pull out.

  • http://mcgath.blogspot.com Gary McGath

    China will still have “American content” whether or not American businesses are operating in China. The alternative you suggest is a false one.

    While American companies have a business presence in China, and employees who are in the country, they’re subject to extortion of information about dissidents. Lobbying for changes isn’t going to help the immediate situation. If a company faces the choice between helping to violate the rights of dissidents and pulling out of a country, its moral obligation is to pull out.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/contributors/braden_cox.php Braden

    I disagree that China’s citizens would still have the same amount of access to American content or anything that resembles pro-democracy / human rights content. For instance, Google does a good job of self-censoring to remove what it thinks will be offending content from a page, so that at least some content from a particular website gets through. Otherwise, China’s censors would just block the entire page. Google doesn’t know exactly what will or won’t offend censors – it’s not like there’s an official list. It likely pushes the boundary to see what it can or can’t get away with. A Chinese ISP would not have access to the unblocked pages because it would already be behind the government’s firewall, and therefore less content would be available to the Chinese people.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/contributors/braden_cox.php Braden

    I disagree that China’s citizens would still have the same amount of access to American content or anything that resembles pro-democracy / human rights content. For instance, Google does a good job of self-censoring to remove what it thinks will be offending content from a page, so that at least some content from a particular website gets through. Otherwise, China’s censors would just block the entire page. Google doesn’t know exactly what will or won’t offend censors – it’s not like there’s an official list. It likely pushes the boundary to see what it can or can’t get away with. A Chinese ISP would not have access to the unblocked pages because it would already be behind the government’s firewall, and therefore less content would be available to the Chinese people.

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