As I See It: Growing a (Non-Binding) Conscience
November 10, 2008 Victor Rozek
When the Internet was first spreading around the globe with the speed and infectiousness of an airborne virus, it soon became evident that many nations would not tolerate the unchecked proliferation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Governments that could not abide opposition became intent on regulating what would otherwise facilitate a dangerous flow of uncensored data and subversive ideas.
Toward that end, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were subjected to some economic arm twisting. What specific threats were made, or incentives offered, is unknown. What is known is that America’s technology giants capitulated to the will of foreign governments. To maintain access to huge emerging markets in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, companies like Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft made deals with the devil. And in return for the promise of continued riches, repressive regimes gained the ability to censor information, regulate access, and gather personal data on individual users.
The rationale of the ISPs was that they were merely complying with local laws and policies. To which human rights advocates responded that many of those laws and policies were in direct violation of long-established and internationally recognized human rights guarantees. Critics pointed out that the promise of freedom of expression and privacy, not to mention prohibitions against illegal detention and torture, were clearly spelled out 60 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. But corporations argued that they are not sovereign states, and have neither the authority nor the responsibility of enforcing human rights.
And so the argument went, back and forth, until about two years ago when something quite remarkable happened. It was like discovering a weeping statue; impressive, but we can’t be certain it’s real without further investigation. Nonetheless, it would appear that corporations experienced a rare stirring of conscience.
The usually dormant corporate conscience may have been kick-started by a series of embarrassing revelations. In China, as we know, activities critical of the government are prohibited and closely monitored. Using words like “freedom,” or “demonstration,” or “human rights,” or, “Taiwan independence” in emails or blogs lands people in prison. Lin Hai, a Shanghai computer scientist, spent 18 months in jail for merely sending e-mail addresses to an online dissident magazine.
Two dissidents received four year prison terms for posting an article critical of then-president Jiang Zemin. Dissident Jiang Lijun received a similar sentence after Yahoo handed over a draft e-mail to Chinese authorities who used it to charge him with subversion. Reporters Without Borders, an organization which defends dissidents, accused Yahoo of being “implicated in the arrest of most of the people we have been defending.” Yahoo was also publicly criticized for its part in the ten year imprisonment of reporter Shi Tao, whose crime was sending an e-mail abroad containing information on government media restrictions. The ISP graciously turned over the private communication to the government.
Since then, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people have been detained or imprisoned for unapproved Internet use. Numerous Internet cafes have been shut down for failing to install surveillance software, and the government demanded that foreign software providers operate under the equivalent of loyalty oaths, committing them to play by Chinese rules which include censoring and tattling.
For its part, Google developed a Chinese version of its search engine that conveniently omits links to verboten sites. Microsoft acceded to Beijing’s wishes and shut down a popular blog that dealt with subversive issues like freedom of speech.
Such Vichyesque cooperation substantially increased the risks for dissidents and journalists. A former police officer in China’s Public Security Bureau testified in Australia that detainees were tortured and sometimes beaten to death. In China, as in other countries, it was becoming evident that Big Brother had two faces and one of them was corporate.
But two years ago, something shifted. A multi-stakeholder group of companies–including Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft–plus human rights organizations, freedom of the press and freedom of speech groups, as well as socially-conscious investors and academics, spent two years in negotiation. What emerged was a collaborative approach designed to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy when ICT companies do business abroad. The result of this ambitious effort is something called the Global Network Initiative.
Although, as of this writing, the full text of the Initiative had not been released, its intent is honorable. It asks companies to incorporate human rights considerations in their strategic planning, and to assess the possibility of abuse when launching new products or entering new markets. It calls for unprecedented transparency and honesty, including revealing to users what’s being censored, the method of censorship, and the identity of those who are collecting and storing their personal data.
Besides providing transparency and requiring an assessment of human rights risks, the Initiative requires that participating companies request the legal rationale for the government’s actions. They are further obliged to train employees to comply with the Initiative; challenge human rights violations; and provide whistle-blowing mechanisms through which violations can be reported. Wow! That’s impressive, if not actually miraculous. The tears falling from the statue appear to be real. For once it’s not just a leaky pipe in the ceiling.
But as you would suspect, there is one small catch. None of it is enforceable. The provisions are voluntary, non-binding, and all those other weasel words that let companies off the hook when they decide they no longer want to play by the rules. Nor will companies be asked to engage in acts of civil disobedience, break local laws, or pull out of markets where violations persist.
Still, it is an extraordinary admission that business decisions have real life and death consequences, and that corporations operating in a global economy have global obligations. It is an acknowledgment that the path of least resistance–going along to get along–is not necessarily the right path; and that corporate rights should not conflict with human rights. Whatever its limitations–and they can only be surmised because the Initiative has yet to be implemented–we can take comfort in the fact that serious people committed two years of their time to craft these principles, and that their commitment speaks to the potential of future outcomes.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the Global Network Initiative comes at a providential time in our history given the revelations that our own government has been spying on its citizens, is amassing enormous amounts of our private information, and has solicited ICT corporations to be instruments of government excess. It remains to be seen if and how the Initiative will be applicable domestically.
Unarguably, the issues are complex and the world has changed a great deal since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the Initiative is being rolled out on the 60th anniversary of that event because its wisdom is as applicable today as it was then.
The Declaration has been largely forgotten and is now little more than a historic curiosity. But its provisions would make Jefferson proud. The preamble calls for “recognition of the inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [as] the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” It acknowledges that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” And it calls for “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want,” and it proclaims such a world to be “the highest aspiration of the common people.”
And because for so many people that world is still an aspiration, it is vital that ICT industry practices support, and not hinder, their hard-won progress. Therefore, any initiative that champions these values should be applauded and embraced.