The moral obligations and competing values of corporations have been debated since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: How do corporate leaders drive for profit maximization while ethically meeting the needs of communities and citizens?
In the age of globalization and worldwide communications revolutions, these issues have taken a new turn. Activists in democratic countries have tried to get governments and companies to halt or limit the sale to authoritarian regimes of technologies that can be used to track, target, jail, or kill dissidents.
Advocacy efforts are also being targeted at trying to convince technology companies not to allow their products to be used to spy upon, censor, block access to content, or thwart the public’s use of Internet-based tools that allow people living in authoritarian states to bring their issues to fellow citizens and allies abroad.
Still, other advocates are trying to convince technology companies to crack down on labor abuses being committed by their foreign suppliers.
- In a series of articles titled “Wired for Repression,” Bloomberg news reporters documented how Western companies in recent years provided surveillance systems to some of the regimes with the worst human rights records, including Iran, Syria, Bahrain, and Tunisia.
- The Wall Street Journal documented in stories under its “Censorship Inc.” banner several cases of American and other Western companies supplying surveillance gear to the Gadhafi regime in Libya and to China.
- Apple CEO Tim Cook was compelled to tour the Foxconn manufacturing plant in China, where the management culture is authoritarian, after New York Times stories documented harsh work conditions at the plant that makes iPhones and iPads.
There are ongoing efforts to try to establish some rules for corporate behavior in the digital age. For instance, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith introduced a bill in the House that would require American companies listed on stock exchanges to report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on how they conduct due diligence on human rights issues. Another bill he submitted would bar U.S. tech firms from selling material to regimes that would use the technology in censorship and repression of dissidents.
Governments in the United States and Europe are being urged by activist organizations to address concerns about the capacity of technology firms to track Internet and mobile phone users and compromise their privacy or personal information. Privacy advocates are pushing for laws and regulations that would prohibit corporate tracking, behavioral advertising and other features tied to people’s personal information. Citizens and advocacy groups are questioning technology companies’ sharing of user information with law enforcement agencies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently published its latest scorecard on major tech firms and how they respond “when the government comes knocking.” Only a handful of major firms, including Dropbox, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, and Sonic.net, tell users about government demands for data about them or disclose more broadly the general trends in requests for information. Almost all the firms in the EFF survey advocate for user privacy protections in public during Congressional policy debates.
In today’s Internet atmosphere, governments of all kinds and corporations from across the technology spectrum have interests in tracking technology users. And citizens, dissidents, and activists are challenging that kind of surveillance. Imagine where we might be in 2020.
The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center asked digital stakeholders to weigh two scenarios for 2020. How will technology firms around the world operate when they are confronted by situations in which optimal product sales and profits can be made only when they follow restrictive rules set by autocratic governments?
A diverse group of 1,021 Internet stakeholders responded to an online, opt-in survey on the subject by selecting one of two scenarios about the future. They were divided in their answers and their expectations for the future. Some 51% of the respondents agreed with the statement:
In 2020, technology firms with their headquarters in democratic countries will be expected to abide by a set of norms—for instance, the "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) citizens being attacked or challenged by their governments. In this world, for instance, a Western telecommunications firm would not be able to selectively monitor or block the Internet activity of protestors at the behest of an authoritarian government without significant penalties in other markets.
Some 39% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:
In 2020, technology firms headquartered in democratic countries will have taken steps to minimize their usefulness as tools for political organizing by dissidents. They will reason that too much association with sensitive activities will put them in disfavor with autocratic governments. Indeed, in this world, commercial firms derive significant income from filtering and editing their services on behalf of the world's authoritarian regimes.
Survey participants were asked to choose one of the alternative visions and answer the following question: “When it comes to the behavior and practices of global tech firms and political, social, and economic movements, how will firms respond? Explain your choice and share your view of this tension pair's implications for the future. What are the positives, negatives, and shades of grey in the likely future you anticipate?”
Many of those who chose the option that norms would apply globally noted in written answers that this is their hope more than their prediction. A significant number of the survey participants said while they chose the first scenario, they expect the true outcome will actually be the second scenario.
Here are some of the major themes and arguments they made:
Norms, market pressures, and white-hat hackers will help dissidents in authoritarian-run regions in the long run.
It’s likely that consumers in Western societies will protest and shun products if corporations do not work for the greater good, especially in situations where human rights and human lives are at stake. “Recent events and the perceived role of social media mark a watershed, which will prevent the second scenario coming about: firms that err too much on conceding to autocratic governments will be penalized by consumers (though I doubt by government as described in the first point),” commented Mark Watson, senior engineer for Netflix and a leading participant in various global cooperative technology groups related to evolving the architecture of the Internet, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, pointed out that Western governments, too, are at times eager to monitor protestors or cut off their communications. Still, he wrote, “I remain fairly optimistic … that firms that try to control content in response to government intervention will risk being abandoned in droves, and thus forced to stick to a reasonable path. We will see.”
People will route around bottlenecks and/or innovate new systems that foster individual rights and freedom. Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, wrote, “Large technology firms will inevitably cave in to governments’ pressure to surveil and control citizens’ activities. The good news is that grass roots, open source capabilities will grow increasingly useful for people to work around government penetration of our digital infrastructures.”
Jeffrey Alexander, senior policy analyst at the Center for Science, Technology & Economic Development at SRI International, explained, “The norms and culture of the past Internet will be more of an influence on the behavior of Internet infrastructure firms than any new set of expectations or norms. Far beyond platitudes like ‘don't be evil,’ the engineers who develop new technologies will have both the inclination and incentive to design them to be resistant to central control and to undermine autocratic behaviors. Also, dissidents are more technology-savvy than dictatorships, and they will be able to repurpose digital technologies to serve their purposes more effectively than central governments will be able to use them for surveillance and suppression. The more pertinent danger is when corporations themselves become centers of power, and they shape technologies to serve their own interests rather than protecting consumer rights. This will be a trend that will be difficult to combat at the individual or governmental level, as the interests of the engineers and management may be more in alignment. This may enable firms to distort technological evolution to favor their interests over those of consumers.”
It’s not easy to do right by everyone. Generally, corporate leaders prefer to avoid politics; when possible they do their best to suit humanitarian goals. “For businesses worldwide—and their shareholders—it’s about the money,” commented Lee W. McKnight, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University and founder of Wireless Grids. “But being closely associated with suppressing legitimate protest movements through use of a firm’s technology will be bad for business.” Jeff Eisenach, managing director and principal of Navigant Economics and formerly a senior policy expert with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, wrote, “Firms will continue to resolve these issues on a case-by-case basis, usually out of sight of First Amendment advocates.”
It is a complicated and mixed picture now. Sometimes circumstances might result in help for dissidents and other times they might result in help for governments seeking to control citizens.
Corporate leaders are generally working all of the angles—including public relations—to squeeze the optimal business advantage and profit they can out of every situation. “Most companies will publicly state that they are doing everything possible to protect citizens while making countless concessions and political decisions that will end up harming citizens,” observed danah boyd, senior researcher with Microsoft Research. “They will work with some governments and not with others. They will reveal the political nature of these processes and make decisions that will shape how they are perceived by their core consumers. They will be constantly called out for their hypocrisies and working to weather political storms by upset customers. But they will publicly present the values that their customers want to hear and their customers mostly want to hear that they’re doing everything possible to protect the good guys.”
John Smart, futurist and the president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, said it’s too early to work out any enforceable guidelines or rules. “Only in 2030 and beyond will individual citizens within democracies have enough artificial intelligence guiding their purchasing and voting decisions to begin to seriously enforce R2P and other corporate social responsibility activities in significant ways,” he wrote. “In the meantime, corporations will do PR spin around these issues but will effectively be able to avoid being either an advocate of or a policer of the common citizen.”
Different regions of the world will continue to be defined by different principles and principals. There will not be universal agreement on norms. Richard Lowenberg, a broadband planner with the 1st-Mile Institute and consultant who integrates rural community planning with network initiatives globally, wrote, “There are no ‘democratic societies’ (noun); only an increasing number of variations on the theme of ‘democratization’ (verb). A healthy future must include being smart about the balance between public and private sectors and interests…Managing 7 billion people is a frightening prospect for those in power (rightly so), whether corporate, government, or military/intelligence entities. (Inter)national security must be based on an ecological context for the fragile balance between competing and cooperating interests and intentions. Narrowly biased, reactionary responses to the complex disruptive forces emerging and being given voice in the information revolution are very likely.”
Stowe Boyd, a well-known digital media consultant, explained, “Tech firms based in Western democratic countries will continue to support the compromises of political free speech and personal privacy that are, more or less, encoded in law and policy today. The wild card in the next decade is the degree to which civil unrest is limited to countries outside that circle. If disaffected youth, workers, students, or minorities begin to burn the blighted centers of Western cities, all bets are off because the forces of law and order may rise and demand control of the Web. And, of course, as China and other countries with large populations—like India, Malaysia, and Brazil—begin to create their own software communities, who knows what forms will evolve, or what norms will prevail? But they are unlikely to be what we see in the West. So we can expect a fragmented Web, where different regions are governed by very different principles and principals.”
Governments in advanced democratic countries all filter, block, and censor the Internet in some ways, too. Tech companies often see cooperating with governments as an unavoidable necessity, whether those regimes are authoritarian or not. “Technology firms have every incentive to cooperate with repressive regimes, and even the so-called ‘democratic’ countries will find reasons to filter and censor the Internet in the coming years,” said Peter J. McCann, senior staff engineer for Futurewei Technologies; chair of the Mobile IPv4 Working Group of the IETF. “Unless some dramatic political change happens that causes people to rise up against censorship, these trends will continue indefinitely.”
Alex Halavais, associate professor at Quinnipiac University, warned, “As cyberwarfare becomes steadily more important, nations will insist on invasive control over large computer services.”
There’s no certainty in answering these scenarios. The result by 2020 is likely to be that there will be a range of responses by firms and governments. “This question is very complex,” noted Hugh F. Cline, an adjunct professor of sociology and education at Columbia University. “There will be many different policies pursued by technology firms in both democratic and other political regimes, and the outcomes will be equally varied.” An anonymous respondent wrote, “Both trends will continue in a kind of yin and yang struggle. There will always be black hats and Blackwaters, and there will always be white hat hackers and Wikileaks.”
The long-range trend is toward more surveillance because it serves the interests of both governments and tech companies.
A corporation’s purpose is to maximize returns. Both businesses and governments leverage technologies to suit primary goals that often conflict with individual rights. “The bottom line of any capitalist enterprise is profit and everything can be sacrificed in order to maximize it, including especially the rights of invisible citizens whose only importance lays in their ability to make a monthly payment,” said Simon Gottschalk, professor in the department of sociology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “Firms might decide to implement steps that protect dissidents only if it is cost-effective for them to do so.”
Seth Finkelstein, professional programmer and consultant and 2001 winner of a Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation for groundbreaking work in analyzing content-blocking software, observed, “Technologies of control have no intrinsic relationship restrictions. If it works on employees of businesses in democracies, it works on citizens of governments in dictatorships. Inversely, if it doesn’t work on citizens of governments in dictatorships, it doesn’t work on employees of businesses in democracies. Pick one. It's an architectural question. Don't say your personal moral values are that businesses have a right to control their employees but governments have no right to control their citizens. The dictatorships don’t care about your personal moral values.”
Ross Rader, general manager at Hover and board member of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, argued: “Market pressure from competition will always keep commercial operators working on behalf of authoritarian regimes. For each organization that chooses to stand up to the demands of a dictator or tyrant, another will step in to fulfill the request.”
Corporations will work around regional differences by spinning off subsidiaries, doing what’s needed to optimize on future profits. An anonymous respondent said, “Firms with Western headquarters will adopt clear policies on R2P, but may spin off subsidiaries and find other ways to work around these limitations.”
Larry Lannom, director of information management technology and vice president at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), predicted, “At best, those companies who want to pursue those markets will feel compelled to set up subsidiaries and sub-licensees.”
Regulation, guidelines, standards, or principles may come to pass, but that won’t necessarily improve things. An anonymous respondent wrote, “Domestic and international security has always been given a higher priority than individual freedoms. There is no reason to think the Internet will change this.” Another anonymous survey participant said, “The 2010s or 2020s decade will explode in [scholarly] papers related to corporate responsibility. Many lectures, congresses, and acts will be developed. Declarations and compromises will be made. In the end, a new Patriot Act will come back to sweep all in the name of national security; secret services will continue monitoring communications; some organizations will still be bugging some public figures; and corporate leaders will continue doing what some members of their councils require, if it will produce money.”
Corporations are more powerful than many governments and their needs and practices will dominate how citizens are tracked.
Some contend dangerous trends will unfold as corporations begin to rival governments in influencing the global future. David Kirschner, a research assistant at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, warned, “We’re moving more toward a world where global firms are more and more allied with government and vice versa. We’re moving toward a world in which everything we do is tracked and monitored. Global tech firms will greatly influence political policies, and all governments, but especially more centralized ones, will greatly influence the policies of firms, as they relate to customer privacy, because, you see, customers and citizens are becoming closely tied together as well. To the extent that there is marriage between global corporations and governments, there will be marriage between the concepts of customer and citizen. Dangerous.”
Ondrej Sury, chief scientist at the .CZ Internet registry, predicted, “I foresee the governments becoming the puppets of big companies and not the big companies dancing as the governments whistle.”
Other overarching thoughts
These scenarios completely neglect other significant influences, locally, regionally, and globally. An anonymous survey participant observed, “There is a Western bias/shortsightedness in this question. The global action will have shifted to Asia, Africa, and Latin America by 2020. The West may become the third world of the future.” Another anonymous respondent said, “Neither scenario is in any sense realistic. Look at the attempts to rule the online world, by the U.S. government in particular, through bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, the greedy moves by big corporations for copyright protection. These will be of much greater significance.”
How to inspire ethical practice? A regulatory equation? Organized global movement? Better childrearing? Former ICANN board member and senior White House technology policy advisor Susan Crawford, now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote, “Many of us had a lot of hope for the Global Network Initiative, but it’s gotten bogged down in its own process and hasn't attracted any non-U.S. (or non-Google, MSN, Yahoo) adherents. In the absence of a collective initiative it seems unlikely that there will be any upside for any individual company that might want to resist the demands of governments—including the U.S. government—when it comes to squelching connection and speech. Indeed, all companies want scale and certainty, and those things come to cooperative entities. I still have hope that multi-stakeholder efforts, particularly at places like the OECD, will bear fruit. But it takes an awful lot of work and time for that fruit to grow, and at the moment we have just barely identified the territory.”
Marcel Bullinga, author of Welcome to the Future Cloud - 2025 in 100 Predictions, observed that we have to start with people’s upbringing in order to instill within all the appropriate respect for all. “Please, parents of the world,” he wrote, “start raising your children again and teach them about the virtue of doing good. Back to the 1950s!”
One of the most elaborate and penetrating answers to these questions came from Jeff Jarvis, director of entrepreneurial journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School, author of Public Parts and What Would Google Do? and Buzzmachine blogger.
Jarvis drew on some previous public encounters to argue that core values should be identified and shared. He was a speaker at an event called the eG8, held just before the G8 summit in May 2011. At the summit, Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France and summit host, spoke out forcefully for more Internet regulation. A section of the official G8 declaration treaded closer to that sort of line. Jarvis, John Perry Barlow, and others who shared the speaker’s platform at the eG8 with Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, and Eric Schmidt worried about civil liberties. In his response to this survey, Jarvis reiterated the things he said at the summit and in other extensive writings:
“In our distributed Internet, we will never—we should never—end up with one set of principles from one governance. The fact that no one can control the Net is what makes the Net free. But we do need to discuss the principles that underlie our Net so we can point to them when governments and companies violate them and so we can give cover to good actors who try to resist control from bad governments.
“My nine proposed principles for discussion:
We have the right to connect. If we cannot connect, we cannot speak. That is a new and necessary preamble to our First Amendment. Finland has declared Internet access—high-speed at that—as a right of citizens. Whether countries should subsidize and provide access is a separate question. But once access is established, cutting it off should be seen as a violation of human rights. ‘It’s now a basic human right to have Internet,’ Thomson Reuters CEO Tom Glocer told media executives in the Middle East. ‘Systematic denial of freedom of accessing information will lead to a revolution.’
We have the right to speak. Freedom of speech is our cultural and legal default in the United States. That First Amendment protection should extend not just to information and opinions delivered by text but also to information delivered by applications and data. Yes, there need to be limitations—on child pornography online, for example. But beware the unintended consequences of attacking a specific problem with an overly broad response.
We have the right to assemble and to act. It is not enough to speak. Our tools of publicness enable us to organize, to gather together—virtually or physically—and to act as a group to demonstrate or to build.
Privacy is an ethic of knowing someone else’s information and what you do with it. We need protection of privacy.
Publicness is an ethic of sharing and deciding whether information you hold could be helpful to others. The foundation of a more public society is the principle of sharing: recognizing the benefits of generosity, building tools that facilitate it, and protecting the product of it.
Our institutions’ information should be public by default, secret by necessity. Openness is a better way to govern and a smarter way to do business.
What is public is a public good. When public information or the public space is diminished, the public loses. Secrecy too often serves the corrupt and tyrannical.
All bits are created equal. When anyone gains the power to decide which bits, words, images, or ideas can or cannot pass freely through our network, it is no longer free.
The Internet must stay open and distributed. [And to quote another:] ‘Let’s give credit to the people who foresaw the Internet, opened it up, designed it so it would not have significant choke points, and made it possible for random people, including 24-year-olds in a dorm, to enter and create,’ says Eric Schmidt.”