Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Cisco and others have been getting a lot of heat over the past year for colluding with human rights violations and state censorship in countries like China. Fortunately, three of those four companies have found the wherewithal to do more than just duck and cover.
A couple of months ago I alluded to a set of closed-door discussions that have been going on over the past year. Today this press release issued by Business for Social Responsibility has finally brought those quiet conversations out of the closet.
Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Vodafone are now committed publicly to a process "which aims to produce a set of principles guiding company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights." As BSR's CEO Aron Cramer put it: "This important dialogue reflects a shared commitment to maximize the information available via the internet on the basis of global principles protecting free expression and privacy."
A number of other companies had the opportunity to join this process - including one of the four companies called on the carpet before Congress last year - but they have lacked cojones. Maybe the first-movers will help them find some?
This "multi-stakeholder" process, as it's called, includes a diverse range of organizations including Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Reporters Without Borders, Harvard's Berkman Center (via whom I participated in a number of last year's meetings), Berkeley Law School, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Boston Common Asset Management, Domini Social Investments, the Calvert Group, Trillium Asset Management, and a number of others (Click here to read the press release including a full list of participating organizations.)
I won't stop being critical when and where deserved, but I do believe that Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft are to be commended for taking all the criticism directed at them seriously enough to send representatives to discussions where human rights groups and socially responsible investment funds have been asking Internet and telecoms companies to set ethical standards and draw "red lines" that their global operations would not be permitted to cross.
This is not only the right thing to do, but these three U.S.-based firms plus the European Vodaphone all recognize that in the long run ethical business is smart business: if your users can't trust you to do all you can to uphold their interests and rights, you will be hard-pressed to retain customers globally. When a company is known to be colluding with state censorship in one country, that tarnishes its credibility in other markets. And when another firm hands political dissidents over to the police in one jurisdiction, its users elsewhere will think twice about using its services.
This announcement is coming just a week after the Global Online Freedom Act, which would regulate company behavior through legislation, was reintroduced into the U.S. Congress. While it has noble intentions, I've got a lot of problems with the framing of that proposed legislation (note it has not yet been passed and is a long way from being so). I also agree with Berkman Center director John Palfrey that the bill makes it "nearly impossible for US technology firms to compete in markets like China." John observes:
If an industry code of conduct were to emerge that had real bite to it, and where NGOs and investors and academics are on hand to ensure that signatory companies live up to it, the results could be far better. And over time, it might well make sense to redact the global industry agreement into law or a treaty to ensure that it is enforceable, evolves over time, and has true public oversight.
My hope for 2007 is that the process of developing industry standards will be broadened beyond U.S. and European companies to include Asian telecoms and Internet firms. As many Asian companies now seek to become trusted global brands, getting in on the ground floor of a process like this one is a great way to build the trust of users beyond the home markets.
Congratulations to Leslie Harris at the CDT, Dunstan Hope at BSR, my colleagues at the Berkman Center and many other people who have persevered to bring things to this point - despite the fact that every single meeting so far has been "headache-making," as one of the participants aptly put it.