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Global Internet Freedom Conference: Corporate Moral Dilemma February 1, 2007

Posted by publicpolitics in Censorship, Coporate Policies.
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Google, Yahoo and Microsoft representatives on Tuesday implored the U.S. government to help set ground rules for complying with demands by foreign law enforcement agencies for user records or censorship.

Anne Broache, CNET

The U..S State Department has just wrapped up its first annual Global Internet Freedom Conference, an event that is sure to grow in importance as private Web companies deal with the various countries attempting to filter content and stop dissent. Faced with a confusing welter of international laws governing content of both personal communications and web sites, Microsoft and the other corporate giants have come belatedly to the recognition that only a unified government policy can provide them with the legal and moral stance they need to answer the censors in consistent ways.

Under United States law corporations are legal “persons”. In pure form, Internet companies are the same as soap manufacturers, and legally have a one dimensional morality- they are obligated to increase and preserve shareholder profits by any means possible. Of course, a company that kills off large numbers of people with a contaminated or dangerous product will not last long (unless it is a tobacco company). Stakeholder , as opposed to shareholder considerations mitigate this process somewhat, and most companies view their constituencies as being much larger than a limited group of shareholders.

However, the legally simple moral imperative remains, and it is inadequate to the task of coping with the ethical dilemmas posed by governments that use stored information to imprison or eliminate dissidents, usually a relatively small portion of the public. Clearly, it is in the interest of Google shareholders to have a presence in China, even if it is a modified presence, and since government censorship or filtering does not affect most Chinese (let alone most residents of the United States), Google or any other corporate entity has no built-in way to solve the problem, even if it wishes to do no evil.

As the CNET story indicates, there are a variety of solutions. One is for government to take up the idea that censorship constitutes a kind of trade barrier. Another is more purely political, and demands that censorship be treated as a key human rights concern. That’s the approach supposedly advocated by the U.S. State Department’s Global Internet Freedom Task Force.

Whatever the approach, the companies clearly need the guidance and authority that a clear government policy can provide. In order to make that policy both credible and persuasive,however, the U.S. will have to apply its policy at home as well as abroad. Transparency and consistent efforts to roll back the current program of domestic spying will go a long way toward establishing any U.S. efforts to combat censorship in the rest of the world.

Tags: implored | user | Rules | representatives | RECORDS | Government | global | giants | freedom | feds | ENFORCEMENT | demands | complying | Censorship | agencies | Yahoo | Web | Washington | tuesday | Politics | Microsoft | internet

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