Pew: Tech Firms Face Tough Choices When Dealing With Repressive Regimes

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 Center€™s Internet and American Life Project.

In survey results released July 4, about 51 percent of 1,021 respondents€”which included officials with tech companies, academics, journalists, consultants and other Internet stakeholders€”said 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 suppressing unrest.

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 company€™s moral obligations and competing corporate values have been debated since the Industrial Revolution, and that the debate is now carrying over onto the Internet.

€œActivists 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. €œAdvocacy 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 public€™s 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 and Facebook, 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.

€œI don€™t 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. €œI 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.

€œ[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.

€œMarket 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. €œFor each organization that chooses to stand up to the demands of a dictator or tyrant, another will step in to fulfill the request.€

€œProfits ultimately drive motivation at corporations,€ Bill St. Arnaud, a consultant at SURFnet, wrote. €œ[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.

€œMost 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. €œThey 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.€