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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Ethical Standards for Internet Companies

Reporters Without Borders is asking: "Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression?" Good question indeed. The human rights groups lists the various ways in which different American "Internet sector companies" have contributed to the stifling of freedom of speech around the world, blocking channels of communication on matters that are clearly unrelated to porn or terrorism. RWB also reveals that its efforts at dialogue with these companies have been ignored by everybody except Google:
Reporters Without Borders has written to the chief executives of several corporations since 2002 proposing an exchange of ideas on this issue. None of our letters have been answered. We have also tried to alert the shareholders of these companies through investment funds. We presented a joint statement (pdf) on 7 November in New York in which 25 investment firms managing some 21 billion dollars in assets undertook to monitor the activities of Internet companies operating in repressive countries.
Aside from Google, all the companies we approached refused to enter into a dialogue on this subject. We would therefore now like the American people’s elected representatives and the Department of State to formally take up this issue. [Links and emphasis added.]
A UK-based organization called Article 19 worked with United Nations on a Joint Declaration: International Mechanisms for Freedom of Expression (pdf). The declaration, just released on December 21st, calls for companies and governments to adhere to the following global standards:
· No one should be required to register with or obtain permission from any public body to operate an Internet service provider, website, blog or other online information dissemination system, including Internet broadcasting. This does not apply to registration with a domain name authority for purely technical reasons or rules of general application which apply without distinction to any kind of commercial operation.
· The Internet, at both the global and national levels, should be overseen only by bodies which are protected against government, political and commercial interference, just as freedom from such interference is already universally acknowledged in the area of the print and broadcast media. National regulation of Internet domain names should never be used as a means to control content.
· The right to freedom of expression imposes an obligation on all States to devote adequate resources to promote universal access to the Internet, including via public access points. The international community should make it a priority within assistance programmes to assist poorer States in fulfilling this obligation.
· Filtering systems which are not end-user controlled – whether imposed by a government or commercial service provider – are a form of prior-censorship and cannot be justified. The distribution of filtering system products designed for end-users should be allowed only where these products provide clear information to end-users about how they work and their potential pitfalls in terms of over-inclusive filtering.
· No one should be liable for content on the Internet of which they are not the author, unless they have either adopted that content as their own or refused to obey a court order to remove that content. Jurisdiction in legal cases relating to Internet content should be restricted to States in which the author is established or to which the content is specifically directed; jurisdiction should not be established simply because the content has been downloaded in a certain State.
· Restrictions on Internet content, whether they apply to the dissemination or to the receipt of information, should only be imposed in strict conformity with the guarantee of freedom of expression, taking into account the special nature of the Internet.
· Corporations which provide Internet searching, chat, publishing or other services should make an effort to ensure that they respect the rights of their clients to use the Internet without interference. While this may pose difficulties in relation to operations in certain countries, these corporations are encouraged to work together, with the support of other stakeholders, to resist official attempts to control or restrict use of the Internet, contrary to the principles set out herein. [Emphasis added]
I personally believe that when we can keep government out of business, we should try very hard to do so. I would like to see these companies do the right thing and adopt their own industry-wide code of conduct based on guidelines like these, which investors and consumers can hold them too. Various civic monitoring groups can help us measure whether they're keeping their promises.
This will also help us as users measure whether we can trust these companies with our own data, and enable us to make smarter choices about who we give our business to.
But if these companies are completely unresponsive to public opinion and private sector pressure, should government step in? How should such regulations be shaped so as not to be counter-productive? There are no easy answers but we need a lot more intelligent public debate on this.
Why should Americans care what these companies do abroad? Aside from the fact that the lack of respect for freedom of speech and human rights could come back to bite us at home, what about our fundamental global interests as a nation? One anonymous commentor on my initial Tuesday post on Microsoft's censorship in China puts it thus:
A lot here have been said about doing business in China must follow the Chinese rules or practices. This certainly has its merit, however this is only the half truth. Why most American companies will not and can not bribe their ways out in China as their Chinese competitors normally do? Because there is something called ‘Foreign Corrupt Practices Act(FCPA)’. The dire financial & reputational consequences of breaching such a US law prevent most Americans from doing under-the-table tricks which are ubiquitous in China. Do American business suffer? I assume so. Why not a lot of people cry for this?
So the question is really at what price the Amercians, especailly the American government, will hold their moral high ground. Comparing with the billions of dollors the Americans (or at least half of the Americans) are willingly to shed to promote democracy in Middle-east, I do believe the financial consequences of Microsoft or Google or whoever who do not comply with Chinese blackmails will be just peanuts.
Certainly, from any single corporation’s point of view, especially for those with big stake in China, loss of revenue there is an immediate pain. This is why I think the American government should step in, establishing something similar to the FCPA, forbiding US companies from assisting foreign governments to curb any democratic initiatives.
If American technology companies don't do a better job at showing they care about human rights and freedom of speech, calls for government intervention are likely to grow louder.
By the way, that initial post of mine on Tuesday hit #1 on Blogpulse for the day, which means, I guess, that a lot of people care pretty strongly about this issue.

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