How beholden are tech companies to protect their users’ rights? Are they obligated to protect human rights, democracy, and freedom of speech? The findings of a new survey released Thursday afternoon by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project show that half of all Internet experts and researchers polled believe that by 2020, corporate social responsibility will be the norm. But four out of ten respondents believe that many corporations will still find ways to put their bottom line first, even if that means making their service unusable to political dissidents.
The release of the survey findings coincided with the news that the United Nations Human Rights Council on Thursday endorsed a resolution that affirms that freedom of expression also applies to the Internet. In a New York Times op-ed written by Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, Bildt hailed the vote as a critical step towards a more open, free Web.
“We cannot accept that the Internet’s content should be limited or manipulated depending on the flavor-of-the-month of political leaders. Only by securing access to the open and global Internet will true development take place,” he wrote.
Are you paying attention, China?
In the most recent Electronic Frontier Foundation scorecard, which rates top Internet and tech companies in terms of how forthright they are about truly protecting users’ data, only one-third of the highlighted companies were willing to disclose to users when their data was being requested and—specifically—when government agencies were requesting their data. Such companies included Google, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Sonic.net, Twitter, and SpiderOak. Interestingly, nearly all of the companies examined were willing to publicly fight for users’ rights to privacy in congress.
“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,” said Danah Boyd, senior researcher with Microsoft Research, in the Pew survey. “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.”
And then there are companies that actively supply repressive regimes with technology to track and stifle political dissent. WikiLeaks announced Thursday that it would be publishing over 2.4 million emails from Syrian government officials. Among them are emails to and from Finmeccanica, Italy’s largest tech manufacturer, which supplied the Syrian government with radio communications systems and helicopter technology.
“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…This may enable firms to distort technological evolution to favor their interests over those of consumers,” said Jeffrey Alexander, senior policy analyst at the Center for Science, Technology & Economic Development, SRI International, in the Pew survey.
Some respondents foresee an ongoing struggle between the forces of good and evil.
“Both trends will continue in a kind of yin and yang struggle,” one anonymous responder said. “There will always be black hats and Blackwaters, and there will always be white hat hackers and Wikileaks.”
Image source: wikia.com