The internet is politically contested terrain, a leading US official said last week, calling on global tech firms to defend cyberspace against authoritarian intrusion and censorship.
Companies had both a financial interest and a moral responsibility to ensure that the internet remained a realm of “empowering innovation” instead of “political domination,” said assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner.
Somebody wasn’t listening.
“A U.S. company that makes Internet-blocking gear acknowledges that Syria has been using at least 13 of its devices to censor Web activity there—an admission that comes as the Syrian government cracks down on its citizens and silences their online activities,” The Wall Street Journal reports:
Blue Coat Systems Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., says it shipped the Internet “filtering” devices to Dubai late last year, believing they were destined for a department of the Iraqi government. However, the devices—which can block websites or record when people visit them—made their way to Syria, a country subject to strict U.S. trade embargoes.
“American tech companies are increasingly being caught in situations where their products and services are used by foreign governments to repress or control their own populace,” according to Politico.
Google, Yahoo and Microsoft consciously designed the Global Network Initiative (GNI), as a multi-stakeholder initiative to bring together rights groups and activists with hi-tech firms to identify problems and develop responses. The tech firms enjoy considerable leverage, a recent Silicon Valley human rights conference heard:
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” (above) that this is because a good chunk of the Chinese intellectual and business elites, not just political dissidents, have come to depend on them.
“No matter how badly behaved some of us companies have been, we’re really here in this room because of the actions of the governments,” Bob Boorstin, Google’s public policy director told the conference. “Governments are causing lots of trouble by blocking.”
One GNI member, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, recently released standards on surveillance equipment. But such advice often falls on deaf ears.
“It’s not my job to really understand what [customers are] going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they’ve made,” said the executive of a firm which reportedly sold surveillance technology to the Chinese city of Chongqing.
Analysts and activists differ over companies’ capacity and responsibility to address the issue.
“You can’t just stay in the walls of your company,” said Caroline Rees of the Harvard Kennedy School told the conference. “You need to engage with others about what is reasonable for you to do.”
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for GNI and other human rights organizations to be asking private corporations to solve foreign policy problems,” said Larry Downes, a senior adjunct fellow at TechFreedom.
“The Obama administration has been really good about highlighting the idea of an open Internet,” said Arvind Ganesan. “They haven’t been strong enough in insisting that U.S. companies act responsibly.”