Should tech companies do business in China?

Tech-firms are providing dictatorships with technologies with inhibit freedom of expression, writer says.

Cisco HQ
Google along with Bing and Yahoo! account for approximately 94 per cent of the global search-engine market [EPA]

In recent weeks, there has been a proliferation of news surrounding the export of surveillance and censorship technologies by North American and European companies to authoritarian governments.  Major companies like Cisco, Amesys, and HP have been accused of exporting surveillance tools to a variety of countries, from Libya to China, while countries like Qatar and Yemen use tools built by Canadian company Netsweeper to censor content on the Web.

Though the US Department of State has pushed forward on its Internet Freedom agenda, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging US companies to consider “what’s right, not simply what’s a quick profit,” little has been done thus far to prevent the complicity of US tech companies in human rights violations. The same goes for the EU and Canada.

At the forefront of the debate is China, where American-made tools have long been used to implement the country’s extreme Internet censorship, known as the “Great Firewall of China.”  At the moment, two pending lawsuits challenge Cisco for allegedly aiding the Chinese government in repression, particularly of members of the banned Falun Gong movement.

A new paper, released this week by the Ottawa-based SecDev Group, focuses on the role played by American companies, noting that Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft’s Bing “account for approximately 94 per cent of the global market share.”  Defending the decision to focus on the United States as “deliberate,” the paper’s authors also note that the US is “at the global forefront of states supporting freedom of expression online.”

HP remains one of the biggest technology companies in China.

There have been numerous attempts by companies and other actors to implement voluntary codes of behaviour.  The Global Network Initiative – a multistakeholder group in which Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft, as well as my own organisation, are all members – has produced a set of standards by which their member companies abide; these standards include a commitment to “avoid or minimise the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on the information available to users.”  Similarly, the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights includes technology company HP as a member.

While such initiatives have certainly contributed toward better free expression policies amongst member companies, Microsoft still censors its Bing search engine in accordance with Chinese law, Google still takes down certain content upon government request, and HP remains one of the biggest technology companies in China.

“Voluntary codes have not served to change behaviour,” claims the SecDev Group, which advocates for a new approach to operating ethically abroad.  One option, suggest the authors, is the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), first introduced in 2006 and proposed again in 2011 with significant revisions.

The original version of the bill included a provision concerning export controls to “Internet-restricting countries” such as China, Tunisia, and Cuba. The latest version of the bill does not name specific countries, but includes the same provision and offers a standard by which foreign countries could be designated as “Internet-restricting.”  That standard would rely upon the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Commerce determining if the government of a given country is “directly or indirectly responsible for a systematic pattern of substantial restrictions on Internet freedom during any part of the preceding 1-year period.”  Companies wishing to export to countries on the list would have to apply for special export licenses for their products.

One major concern of critics has been the creation of such a list. In 2007, analyst Rebecca MacKinnon called the bill “an overly blunt instrument and promotes an over simplistic world view that divides the world into ‘good’ countries versus ‘bad’ countries and legislates corporate behaviour accordingly.” The fear, of course, is that allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar will be left off the list. Such fears are not unfounded: The US government famously upheld the dictatorial regimes of Tunisia and Egypt until after uprisings in each country were well underway. Some Internet freedom specialists see the government’s agenda as just an extension of broader foreign policy.

Nevertheless, as the SecDev authors note, “discussions concerning the provisions of the bill and its potential implementation will be enormously worthwhile in encouraging dialogue on these issues.”

Indeed, what is needed is a more comprehensive discussion around how technology can restrict human rights, and one that ensures we’re listening to voices from the affected countries. Last year, Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia wrote a scathing critique of U.S. Internet freedom policy in which he noted the “preferential and unbalanced treatment that [that focuses on] on two major cases, Iran and China.”

More recently, Chinese journalist Michael Anti gave a speech after receiving the M100 Media Award in which he discussed why, as a journalist, he cares so much about free expression in China.  In concluding, the 36-year-old Beijing resident offered advice to foreign companies doing business in his country: “Always stick to your values.”

Whether the answer is binding legislation or voluntary pacts, it’s become increasingly apparent that many companies lack the values that Anti wishes them to uphold.  Left to their own devices, these companies find it easy to defend their choices with feigned ignorance; or as an HP executive recently put it in reference to a Chinese bid for their products: “It’s not my job to really understand what they’re going to use it for.”

Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.