Report: Tech companies must stand up against repressive regimes

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

The Global Network Initiative advises that companies assess human-rights risks in countries where they operate.

Companies that want to operate in countries with repressive regimes need to minimize the way their technologies can be abused by the government, according to a new report commissioned by an Internet-freedom coalition.
Technology companies have often faced dilemmas in countries like China, where government can abuse the same technology that benefits millions of people.
“Companies faced with state demands that violate human rights have a duty to minimize the extent of any such cooperation,” researchers wrote in the report prepared for the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of Internet companies, nonprofit organizations, and universities. “They must assess in advance the human-rights risks in countries where they operate, take measures to minimize these risks, and help the victims of any enforced cooperation.”
Cisco, for example, has been criticized for selling technology to the Chinese government, and Google and Facebook have both struggled to make inroads in China, where the government holds tight control over the Internet. More countries are also clamping down on Internet speech after online organizing was credited with helping spark revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.

In April, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting companies from assisting regimes in Iran and Syria with “computer or network disruption, monitoring, or tracking that could assist in or enable serious human-rights abuses.”
Even in countries considered to have an unfettered Internet, companies have faced increased pressure to provide governments with information in cases involving child pornography, cybersecurity, terrorism, and copyright infringement, among others. On Thursday, authorities in the United Kingdom unveiled an ambitious surveillance plan that calls for monitoring all Web visits, e-mail, phone calls, and text messages.
“Governments are the primary problem here, not companies,” argued Google’s director of public policy, Bob Boorstin, at an event unveiling the report on Thursday.
He said that even if companies don’t want to violate human rights, governments often force them to compromise.

The GNI report’s authors suggest that companies need to stand up against governments around the world by only responding to legal requests for information. The report also recommends that companies limit the amount of information they collect so that governments have less to ask for.
“While states are responsible for protecting human rights online under international law, companies responsible for Internet infrastructure, products, and services can play an important supporting role,” the researchers wrote.
GNI members include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and organizations such as the Center for Democracy and Technology.