Why Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! need to be reined in

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Reporters without Borders (RWB) today issued its “Enemies of the Internet” report, exposing state censorship of free speech and expression around the world. Topping the group’s list were Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

While the United States is not on the list, RWB and Amnesty International earlier in the week highlighted the role of U.S. companies in internet censorship by calling on Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals, even if just for a day, on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship (today March 12th).

The call on the companies is a reminder that censorship does not just happen by states acting alone. The very companies that provide access to information on-line are actively participating in the restriction of such access.

So, what happens when U.S. companies adopt the censorship practices of other countries rather than export the ideals of free speech that are largely granted to users in their homeland?

There is a clear need for regulation. While the industry has begun attempts at self-regulation, they have made far too little progress in far too much time. Rep. Chris Smith has been vigilant in trying to pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would bring about transparency in state requests of U.S. firms to censor protected speech, and help the companies to refuse such requests, with the backing of the U.S. government.

To date, the companies have opposed the bill’s chances of becoming law.

If RWB and Amnesty’s call for one day of freedom from online censorship goes unheeded by the companies, it in itself will speak volumes — how can we expect them to make meaningful strides in their ongoing operations if they can’t even commit to a one-day, mostly a symbolic gesture?

If the U.S. doesn’t want to find itself on the “enemies” list one day, it needs to step in and regulate companies based in its soil that are essentially partners in the crackdown on free expression occurring across the world.

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3 thoughts on “Why Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! need to be reined in

  1. I originally read this blog post from Daily Kos. Some of the comments to the Daily Kos blog post were highly critical of the idea of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo lifting censorship for a day and argued that these companies have no reason or power to stop censorship.

    A few who commented on Daily Kos were quick to invoke the argument that business and ethics couldn’t mix for plenty of reasons–one for example, that “business ethics” or “corporate social responsibility” is counterproductive to the business model, in which the ultimate goal is to maximize profit, not maximize social benefit. But it’s a narrow argument that suggests that corporations act outside society when in reality, corporations are co-dependent on the societies in which they operate.

    So it may not be Google, Microsoft and Yahoo’s duty to protect freedom of expression in oppressive countries such as China, but these companies still have a social responsibility to support freedom of expression, a basic human right.

    Others believed that if Google, Microsoft and Yahoo agreed to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals for simply a day, the Chinese government would simply refuse to let the three operate in the country. But I highly doubt that the Chinese government would retaliate so disproportionately. For such an outcome, there is an assumption that the Chinese population would have no say or resistance to total censorship by its government.

    But simply take a look at the frontpage article of the New York Times for March 12, 2009, “A Dirty Pun Tweaks Online Censors” to see how some of the Chinese people are protesting against internet censorship. People may not be rallying in the streets with picket signs, but small subversive acts of protest that have spread so widely across the Chinese internet community indicate that enough is enough. Give the People what they want.

  2. I originally read this blog post from Daily Kos. Some of the comments to the Daily Kos blog post were highly critical of the idea of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo lifting censorship for a day and argued that these companies have no reason or power to stop censorship.

    A few who commented on Daily Kos were quick to invoke the argument that business and ethics couldn’t mix for plenty of reasons–one for example, that “business ethics” or “corporate social responsibility” is counterproductive to the business model, in which the ultimate goal is to maximize profit, not maximize social benefit. But it’s a narrow argument that suggests that corporations act outside society when in reality, corporations are co-dependent on the societies in which they operate.

    So it may not be Google, Microsoft and Yahoo’s duty to protect freedom of expression in oppressive countries such as China, but these companies still have a social responsibility to support freedom of expression, a basic human right.

    Others believed that if Google, Microsoft and Yahoo agreed to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals for simply a day, the Chinese government would simply refuse to let the three operate in the country. But I highly doubt that the Chinese government would retaliate so disproportionately. For such an outcome, there is an assumption that the Chinese population would have no say or resistance to total censorship by its government.

    But simply take a look at the frontpage article of the New York Times for March 12, 2009, “A Dirty Pun Tweaks Online Censors” to see how some of the Chinese people are protesting against internet censorship. People may not be rallying in the streets with picket signs, but small subversive acts of protest that have spread so widely across the Chinese internet community indicate that enough is enough. Give the People what they want.

  3. Pingback: Putting a Face to Internet Censorship | Human Rights Now - Amnesty International USA Blog