Web giants join ‘Global Network Initiative’ to combat Internet censorship abroad

by on October 28, 2008 · 7 comments

Should U.S. businesses involved in Internet commerce do business in nations governed by oppressive regimes? This is a question that many libertarians—including some of us on TLF—have grappled with for some time.

Now Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have signed on to a set of principles for conducting business in countries that disregard human rights. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports:

Under the new principles, which were crafted over two years, the technology titans promise to protect the personal information of their users wherever they do business and to “narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy,” according to the code.

It’s welcome news for defenders of liberty that U.S. Web giants plan to play hardball with foreign governments who would use information gleaned from Internet firms to violate their citizens’ human rights. Several troubling reports have surfaced in the past few years about American companies abetting egregious actions by oppressive governments. In January, Indian police beat a man whose arrest stemmed from Google’s cooperation with the Indian government. And in 2005, Yahoo gave information to the Chinese government that led to the arrest of a journalist accused of giving out state secrets (the case was later overturned).

As I pointed out in the E-Commerce Times a couple months ago, it’s unclear whether this code of conduct is truly voluntary. Did these firms act out of genuine concern for human rights, or merely to get Congress off their backs? I suspect both of these elements played a role, but it’s the looming threat of political predation that worries me.

So far, no laws have surfaced in Congress (at least not in the current session) that would prevent U.S. firms from conducting business in restrictive nations. But when a U.S. Representative says to a business, “morally you are pygmies,” legislation can’t be far behind.

The decision to operate in nations that violate human rights is a delicate one, but it should left up to the management of each company to weigh the competing values of shareholders, consumers, and, of course, activists. If Microsoft, Yahoo, or Google decides that the benefits of creating greater returns for investors and allowing oppressed people increased access to information trump the ugly aspects of doing business in these nations, then Congress–itself hardly a champion of civil liberties–should stay out of the way.

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