Misdirected Blame on Internet Companies for Failures in International Affairs & China

by on March 3, 2010 · 5 comments

“With a few notable exceptions, the tech industry seems unwilling to regulate itself. I will introduce legislation that will require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, or face civil and criminal liability.” – Senator Dick Durbin, as reported by the Washington Post.

We hear you, Sen. Durbin. The practices of many nations toward free speech and political dissidents are terribly wrong. But we respectfully and strongly disagree with your statements at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary hearing on global Internet freedom and the rule of law.

The growth of IT companies throughout the world has been an enormous boon to free speech and human rights. Although these technologies present new challenges, particularly when taken together with widely varying laws, they are doing far more good than harm, everywhere that they are deployed.

But if you attended the hearing and knew nothing about the Internet, you’d think that American online companies doing business in China and elsewhere were pure evil – as if they were the ones with the power to not comply with – or change — the criminal laws of other nations.

In particular, Facebook and Twitter were called out for not joining the Global Network Initiative (GNI). The product of more than two years of study and development by companies and public interest groups, the Initiative offers a set of guiding principles for global IT companies doing business in an increasingly global environment.

But while the GNI exposes online companies to new scrutiny, it doesn’t provide any protection from aggressive governments. And at a price tag of $200,000, the GNI isn’t cheap. How effective will it be, really, at changing the practices of totalitarian nations? This is the real goal, and it seems that the best way to achieve this is through diplomacy among governments, not by deputizing online companies to be our State Department.

Which brings us to the real question (first raised in this NY Times LTE): In a China with no American content or online services, will the goals of free speech and civil rights be better served? We’re right to focus on the human rights abuses of other nations and how online companies can better promote free expression, but let’s place the object of the scorn where it truly belongs.

  • cynthia_cdt

    One correction: The three founding companies committed $100,000 each for the first two years. However, the company membership fees for joining GNI are significantly less than $200,000 for non-founding companies joining now. Senator Durbin read the current interim fee structure into the record at the hearing, which ranges from $2,000 (annual revenues < $100m) to $60,000 (annual revenues > $50bn).

    ICT companies are going to encounter increasingly dicey ethical problems all over the world, and they have a range of options for how they respond, almost all of which will fall short of pulling out of a difficult market. Yes, it is true that governments shoulder the ultimate obligation to not violate the human rights of their citizens. However, that does not mean that company action has no impact: specific company decisions about what products/services to offer, how those products/services are designed, and how they respond to government requests to take down user content or hand over user data can have an impact on users' ability to speak and protect their privacy — not only in places like China, but also here in the U.S. Should we not offer criticism when companies make decisions that imperil user privacy or restrict user speech?

    And of course action by the State Department at the government-to-government level is a necessary part of the strategy. Responsible company action, collaborative efforts like the GNI, and U.S. diplomacy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, all of these efforts are needed to preserve the Internet as an agent for greater freedom and economic growth. CDT has called on the U.S. government to take action on several fronts: http://www.cdt.org/statecraft

    Cynthia Wong
    Center for Democracy & Technology (a member of the GNI)

  • bradencox

    Thanks for the comment and the clarification, Cynthia. Private and public sector cooperation is critical for international endeavors, but particularly when it is information and communications related. Americans strongly associate free speech as a fundamental right, but most societies do not. And while American companies are of course expected to follow the laws of other lands and cooperate with foreign authorities, we also don't want them to be co-conspirators. But it's an uncomfortable line to draw sometimes.

  • bradencox

    Thanks for the comment and the clarification, Cynthia. Private and public sector cooperation is critical for international endeavors, but particularly when it is information and communications related. Americans strongly associate free speech as a fundamental right, but most societies do not. And while American companies are of course expected to follow the laws of other lands and cooperate with foreign authorities, we also don't want them to be co-conspirators. But it's an uncomfortable line to draw sometimes.

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