Boycott: The Right Move?

Software vendors supply governments with censorship tools.

In the early 80s, there was a movement to boycott companies that dealt with the then-oppressive South African government. Recently, after several articles came out about companies aiding and profiting from censorship by oppressive governments, Im starting to wonder if similar tactics, especially in the technology area, are now necessary.

Two pieces of news started me on this train of thought. The first was a study from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School that detailed how the Saudi Arabian government is using standard filtering software from Secure Computing not only to block pornography but also to block sites about religions other than Islam, sites that show women empowered and the Amnesty International site. The other news was the announcement by Internet portal vendors, including Yahoo, that they will voluntarily censor their Chinese portal.

This can be tricky. If you follow every companys relationships down a line, you can find a company dealing with someone who is objectionable. And you cant stop China or other oppressive regimes from buying your product off a shelf and using it. But if your company is actively supporting the product and essentially making it easier for them to censor dissent and contrary opinions, then that is stepping over the line.

And this isnt just a moral issue. You might be thinking to yourself, "We cant decide what products well use based on moral issues." This attitude might change when you find your company site blocked because you announced a customer win with iVillage (a site blocked in Saudi Arabia).

Censorship isnt good for the Internet, and censorship by governments isnt good for humanity. The next time you are evaluating a product that can be used to filter or censor content, you might want to just check to see who else is on the customer list.

Should tech companies be held accountable for whom they do business with? Let me know at