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Internet Intervention

How Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft sold their souls to China.


Last year, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google were called to the carpet in Congress for colluding with state censorship and surveillance in China and other less-than-free countries. In response, the three companies recently made a public commitment to develop industry principles that will help them to protect their users' rights to privacy and freedom of expression.They're not off the hook just yet, but it's a positive step forward-and it's a sign that the private-public partnerships pioneered by the labor and environmental movements might also work to protect freedom of expression.In places where lucrative markets are ruled by authoritarian governments that don't even pretend to believe in free speech-governments that include political activities, like advocating that the ruling party should be voted out of office, in their definition of "crime"-internet and telecom companies have been finding it hard to do the right thing, or even to figure out what the right thing is.Yahoo has handed over user information from its China-based email service to Chinese authorities, helping to put at least four Chinese dissidents in jail. It also heavily censors searches for political keywords on its Chinese search engine. Microsoft created an outcry in early 2006 when it deleted a popular Chinese blogger's site on MSN Spaces in response to political pressure. It, too, has a censored Chinese search engine. And last year, Google launched a Chinese version of its search engine-also censored-raising concerns that the company had strayed from its promise to "do no evil." All three companies argue that Chinese internet users are still much better off thanks to China's digital revolution-censored and spied on though they may be.Whether China's internet users are better off with a censored Google than with no Google at all is hard to say. What is clear, though, is that internet and telecom companies face a problem-not just in authoritarian countries, but in Europe and North America as well. Companies everywhere are frequently forced to choose between user rights and interests on the one hand, and government demands to turn over user information or censor content on the other. Unless we give companies strong reasons to err on the side of protecting our rights (and show that there will be consequences for their business if they do not), they will be inclined to err on the side of complying with government demands to limit our access to information or content. The issue may be in most stark relief in China due to the nature of that country's government and the importance of its market. But it's not just a China thing. It's a global thing. It's a war-on-terror thing. Some friends of mine who work in Silicon Valley shake their heads when I talk about this issue. "You have to understand," they say. "These companies have to maximize profits and shareholder value. They've got to do what they've got do."
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Google didn't promise to "do no evil" for the sake of altruism.
Sure. Hiring 8-year-olds for a couple of cents a day would no doubt enrich the shareholders of athletic-shoe companies. Dumping untreated sewage into local rivers and lakes would no doubt help their balance sheets, too. All of these things used to be standard practice in much of the world, but slowly that has changed, thanks to labor rights and environmental groups. The fight may never truly end, but at least there are standards to which companies can be held. Companies and their investors have come to recognize that they need to be good global citizens if their brands are going to be respected and if they are going to be successful over the long term. Google didn't promise to "do no evil" for the sake of altruism.As internet and telecom companies become the repositories of our identities-we depend on them to communicate, to work, to create art, to express ourselves, and to understand our world-their business models have come to depend on our trust.Until a couple of years ago, socially responsible investment funds considered internet companies to be a "clean play" because they lacked the labor and environmental problems of so many other industries. Now they are starting to ask some tough questions. Representatives of several funds will be present at upcoming stake-holder meetings with human-rights groups, free-speech activists, academics, and the four companies. Let's hope their presence will encourage more companies to join the process. Unless the information industry commits itself to respecting the rights of all users around the globe, how can we trust it not to sell us out?