Sunday, January 8, 2006

Re: Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression ?

Reporters sans Frontiers has made a call for action/change about Internet companies that do business with repressive countries. Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression ? They cite several cases of Internet and Technology companies cooperating with repressive countries, for example Google and Yahoo filter search results based on blacklists provided by the countries in question.

In case you don't grasp the significance of this ... In the 1930's and 1940's IBM gave a lot of help to Hitlers government in Nazi Germany. They used the just-developed punched card machines (not quite computers, but close) to record and track information about Jews, so that they could more efficiently perform the Holocaust.

Todays computer equipment and technology are far more efficient and capable than the crude toys IBM used to help Nazi Germany commit the Holocaust. And, of course, that means any country that deploys their technology for repressive purposes, will be able to do so much more effectively than did Nazi Germany.

In a sense this is very simple. If these companies want to do business in those countries -- e.g. China is among these repressive countries, and China is a huge and burgeoning market which any technology company would be foolish to ignore -- then they have to do so within the laws of the country in question. In particular, under what justification would some company have the right to ignore the laws of some country in which they do business? None. Countries are supposed to trump companies.

But RSF makes a very interesting point. They cite several instances where technology companies cooperated with repressive countries, and claim those are violations of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations when it was founded and which is supposed to apply to everyone, including business corporations.

They offer several proposals that would limit "U.S. Companies" in what they can do inside a repressive country. For example

No US company would be allowed to host e-mail servers within a repressive country*. So, if the authorities of a repressive country want personal information about the user of a US company’s e-mail service, they would have to request it under a procedure supervised by US.

The activities seem geared to keeping equipment and services outside the repressive countries, so that repressive countries have to abide by U.S. law in order to take certain repressive actions. And, they say the list of repressive countries will be defined by the U.S. State Department.

I think they're pissing into the wind, but you have to admire the integrity with which they are approaching this.

However, as a practical matter, how can we trust the U.S. State Department to be a fair arbiter of repressive governments? We, the U.S., are actively engaged with China as a business partner, for example. And there is the matter of Indonesia where the U.S. actively helped them in repressing the East Timor peoples.

Also discussed by:

Dan Gillmor: A Dangerous Question and Smart Mobs: Regulate internet companies to make them respect freedom of speech: Reporters Without Borders