Human Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility
Another good prod from The Economist below. Corporate social responsibility for Internet companies from fair trade, to environmental sustainability and also to human rights. Companies must have responsibility while the public has rights. That is the meme over and over again for big companies like Google or Hotmail in allowing governments to snoop or criminals to act with impunity. Some privacy should be protected and some should be unprotected depending on the situation. The basic rule I think is that once the individual does not behave responsibly in the Internet, he forgoes his rights to privacy and protection. Sounds fair. The question of course is who determines what i”s responsible”. The interesting sub-story is about Alaa abd el Fattah, who is either a witness or an accused in civil-religious unrest in Egypt recently. The wold wide web wild wild West.
The internet and human rights
The Googleberg press
Oct 26th 2011, 19:06 by G.L. | SAN FRANCISCO
THE first Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, which has been going on yesterday and today in San Francisco, is rightly proud of itself for having brought over several prominent Arab online activists. (Disclosure: I moderated a panel there.) But the real heavyweight is Google, which has 20 people listed as attending, of whom no less than nine are speakers.
The aim of the conference is to get a discussion going about what the companies whose technology now powers much of the world’s social and political activism can or should do when governments try to limit their citizens’ access to it, snoop on their activities, or use it against them. One of the speakers is Alaa abd el Fattah, an Egyptian blogger who, when he gets back home, will face questioning before a military tribunal on charges that he incited protests by Coptic Christians earlier this month at which the army killed 28 people. Ironically, some of the purported evidence against Mr abd el Fattah seems to be a video posted by another blogger on YouTube.
Google’s large presence here reflects the fact that it is, by the standards of Silicon Valley firms, pretty enlightened. Its biannual transparency report shows, among other things, how many times it got (and complied with) government requests to see users’ data or remove offending content. It is one of only three companies so far (the other two being Yahoo! and Microsoft) to have joined the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a set of principles around freedom of expression, privacy and so on. After being criticised for running a censored search engine in China, it won plaudits for closing it down last year after Gmail accounts were hacked, and it provides Gmail and other services there under the same terms and conditions as anywhere else—not a universal practice.
But it also reflects the extent to which the world and especially human-rights activists depend on the company’s infrastructure. Gmail was hacked in China because it was activists’ email service of choice. Despite Google’s testy relationship with the Chinese government, things like Gmail and Google Docs continue to be available there (albeit with some disruption); Rebecca MacKinnon, a founder of the GNI, argues in her upcoming book “The Consent of the Networked” that this is because a good chunk of the Chinese intellectual and business elites, not just political dissidents, have come to depend on them. Mr abd el Fattah said yesterday at the conference that he would like to see a more decentralised internet, and indeed there are many alternative search engines, email services, video hosting sites and so on, some of which offer more anonymity than the big firms do. But since only a minority know about and use them, firms like Google have great power.
And this power can turn to hubris. A good part of this morning’s panel discussion on the politics of internet freedom revolved around a claim by Victoria Grand, a YouTube executive, that YouTube (which Google owns) was to video what the Gutenberg press was to books. Others jumped on her: how could YouTube be the press and simultaneously ban certain kinds of content, like pornography or graphic violence? Objectively, it’s pretty clear that the web itself is the press. Google’s power is in being not the press, but the distribution channel that so many people use. It would do well to remember that.
The theme of the conference is how companies can use this power for good. The real question, to my mind, is what power their users have to make companies do that. The very biggest firms are susceptible to bad publicity. (Google, again, is more susceptible than most, partly because of its size and partly because its “don’t be evil” motto, corny as it is, provides an easy stick to beat it with). But what about others? How many Vodafone users in Britain know or care that it complied with Egyptian government demands to cut off internet access and send out pro-regime text messages during the uprising this spring? How many users of the anti-virus and filtering software from McAfee (now owned by Intel) know or care that the company worked hand-in-hand with the ben Ali regime in Tunisia to help it block unwanted websites? So far, this question isn’t getting much of an answer.