A survey finds that half of Internet stakeholders believe that in the future, tech companies will do the morally correct thing, while 39 percent say they’ll go with the money.
Tech companies in the future will continue to
be influenced by the competing pressures of customer demands and profits when
deciding how to deal with repressive regimes, according to respondents to a
survey put out by the Pew Research Centers Internet and American Life Project.
results released July 4
, about 51 percent of 1,021 respondentswhich
included officials with tech companies, academics, journalists, consultants and
other Internet stakeholderssaid they were optimistic that high-tech firms in
democratic countries would act morally when dealing with countries looking to
use technology to violate human rights, including spying on their citizens and
However, about 39 percent were more
pessimistic, saying that such tech firms would give in to pressure from
authoritarian regimes and their own drive for profits, showing more fidelity to
their financial bottom lines and stakeholders than to customers or those people
ruled by repressive governments.
The respondents were given two different
scenarios for 2020, and asked to choose which one they agreed with most, and to
write about their views.
In the report, authors Lee Rainie of the Pew
Research Center and Janna Quitney Anderson of Elon University noted that a
companys moral obligations and competing corporate values have been debated
since the Industrial Revolution, and that the debate is now carrying over onto
Activists in democratic countries have tried
to get governments and companies to halt or limit the sale to authoritarian
regimes of technologies that can be used to track, target, jail or kill
dissidents, the authors wrote. Advocacy efforts are also being targeted at
trying to convince technology companies not to allow their products to be used
to spy upon, censor, block access to content, or thwart the publics use of
Internet-based tools that allow people living in authoritarian states to bring
their issues to fellow citizens and allies abroad. Still, other advocates are
trying to convince technology companies to crack down on labor abuses being
committed by their foreign suppliers.
The survey comes at a time when issues of
technology, human rights and privacy are being debated. For example, networking
giant Cisco Systems began coming under pressure last year for allegedly helping
the Chinese government build an Internet firewall that allowed officials to
censor the Web and keep track of dissidents, including the banned Falun Gong
organization. In addition, a growing number of Web-based companies, including Google
are coming under increasing pressure from users and regulators alike about the
amount of personal data they collect and how they store and use that data.
The survey also came as the United Nations
Human Rights Council passed a resolution that calls freedom of expression on
the Internet a basic right.
For many who held a more optimistic vision
for the Internet, the driving forces that will keep tech firms following a firm
moral compass will continue to be customer pressure and the growth of such
technologies as social networks.
I dont actually think the big companies in
democratic countries will care much about what happens in Syria, and they
will try to tread carefully around China, Jonathan Grudin, principal
researcher at Microsoft, wrote in his comments. I remain fairly optimistic,
though, that 'technology firms' won't be in complete control here, or that some
of them will succeed in remaining largely conduits, and that firms that try to
control content in response to government intervention will risk being
abandoned in droves, and thus forced to stick to a reasonable path.
Mark Watson, senior engineer for Netflix, had
a similar view.
[F]irms that err too much on conceding to
autocratic governments will be penalized by consumers, Watson wrote, noting
that social media will continue to play an important role as well.
Others were less optimistic, believing that
ultimately, companies will go where the money is.
Market pressure from competition will always
keep commercial operators working on behalf of authoritarian regimes, wrote
Ross Rader, general manager at Hover, a domain name and email management firm.
For each organization that chooses to stand up to the demands of a dictator or
tyrant, another will step in to fulfill the request.
Profits ultimately drive motivation at
corporations, Bill St. Arnaud, a consultant at SURFnet, wrote. [I]n the long
run, making money always trumps good intentions.
Danah Boyd, a researcher and academic at
Microsoft Research and a number of educational institutions, sees a future
where companies are constantly trying to find the right balance.
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, Boyd
wrote. 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 theyre doing
everything possible to protect the good guys.