The border-blurring brought on by the Internet must just be driving oppressive regimes nuts.  How are you supposed to control what information people get their hands on when it’s coming from the other side of the globe at the speed of light from people beyond the reach of your thugs and laws?  Well, many such regimes have adopted the tactics of similarly-minded paranoid conservative parents who don’t know what to make of the Internet.  If the source is beyond their control, they can at least attempt to block it at the point of entry.

This puts the foreign companies providing the content in a bit of a pickle.  They don’t want to lose their market share in the country in question, but they (hopefully) don’t want to facilitate oppression either.  Or, they don’t want to look like they’re facilitating oppression.  In fact, foreign companies are in a better position than citizens of the country in question, since they’re able to use their economic clout to influence policies without the same risks and restrictions that domestic actors face.  So, striking a balance between these concerns is of great importance to the success and reputation of the company as well as the human rights situation in the oppressive country.  Here are some of the options foreign companies have:

Cooperate & Facilitate

Do whatever the oppressive government wants you to.  Stop doing things they want you to stop, and give them the information they demand.

Pros:  You get to continue operating in the country.  Market share and profit and stuff.

Cons:  You’re doing evil, and everyone will hate you for it.  You could also get in legal trouble in the US.

Example: Yahoo!, China, 2004. Pretty much the worst possible way to handle this sort of situation.  In 2004, the Chinese government released a document warning journalists about reporting on sensitive topics because of the looming 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests.  Journalist Shi Tao sent a brief of this document to the Asia Democracy Foundation via his Yahoo! e-mail account.  The Chinese government found out and demanded Yahoo! hand over information about the sender.  Yahoo! did it without even asking what it was for.  As a result, Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison.  Yahoo! was criticized by every human rights organization in the book.  Congress investigated the incident, and later reprimanded Yahoo! for not giving full details to them regarding the incident.  Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) told Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”  Yahoo! was sued in the US on behalf of Shi Tao and another journalist, and they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.  There still exists a campaign to boycott Yahoo! because of this, and I still refrain from using Yahoo! services.  Oh, did I mention they did the same thing two years earlier, resulting in another ten year prison sentence for journalist Wang Xiaoning?  And were complicit in helping to convict Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, two other government critics?

Bahrain's blocked website page

Example: SmartFilter, Middle East.  McAfee’s SmartFilter software has been used by governments in Tunisia, Sudan, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to block certain Internet content from reaching users.  They make no effort to prevent or prohibit governments from using this software, which is allegedly aimed at homes and schools.  The software includes a database of more than 25 million blockable websites in various categories.  Such filtering databases as well as selective algorithms have been shown time and again to be massively flawed in the categories they attribute to various websites.  But, instead of simply inconveniencing a student who wants to research safe sex, AIDS, or religious tolerance (God forbid), it alters the information that can make it to an entire country of Internet users.  The OpenNet Initiative also accused Iran of using SmartFilter, though the US’s embargo against Iran would prohibit the sale or licensing of this software to Iran.  The company has said that Iran pirated their software.  Some say Iran now has its own censorship software.  While McAfee doesn’t market their software to oppressive regimes or for the purpose of mass censorship, some selectivity in who they license their software to or the scale at which they allow it to be implemented wouldn’t be a bad idea.  It wouldn’t stop governments from pirating it, but at least it would help McAfee from appearing complicit in censorship.

Unfortunately, there are way more examples of this response than any of the responses below.

Cooperate Less

Set a limit to your capitulation while acknowledging the authority of the host government as set out by its laws.

Pros:  You might get to continue operating in the country without giving in entirely.  You would also help make it clear that there is a limit to what governments can force foreign Internet companies to do.

Cons:  The government might still prevent you from operating there.  You might not get the benefit of being seen as standing up to oppression.

Example: YouTube, Turkey, 2007. The Turkish government mandated that Turkish telecom providers block access to YouTube because it hosted some videos that were said to insult Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel of Google, which owns YouTube, decided that Google would block Turkish IP addresses from accessing videos that clearly violated Turkish law.  Later, though, a Turkish prosecutor demanded that Google block users anywhere in the world from accessing such videos.  This is where Google drew the line, and they refused to capitulate to the unreasonable request.  YouTube remained blocked in Turkey until 2010 when Turkey’s Transport Minister, in charge of Internet issues, lifted the ban, proclaiming that “common sense prevailed”.  So, despite the dismay and limited success of the conservative elements that demanded the ban, internal pressure and the realization of YouTube’s importance prevailed.

Move Services Out of the Offending Country

The more of a company’s operations that physically take place within the offending country, the more power the government can assert over the company.  Partnering with local firms presents similar problems.  Locating data storage in particular outside of the country allows in-country users to move their data farther from the reach of their government.  There are few examples of companies making this kind of drastic business change, but the choices companies make before starting business in other countries affect their relationship to freedom of speech controversies in the future.  For example, Google and Microsoft don’t partner with Chinese companies (though they have their own workers in China), whereas Skype and Yahoo do, and the latter companies have lost much more face in controversies surrounding censorship in China.

Pros:  It’s likely that the offending country’s government will block your services anyways, but at least the option is there should they choose to unblock them in the future.  There’s also the advantage of preserving your reputation and being seen as not doing evil.

Cons:  Your services might very well get blocked.  Your local workers or former local workers could face trouble.

Example: Google, China, 2010. When Google discovered hacking attempts targeted at the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, which would put those activists in great danger, they reacted harshly.  They announced that they would stop censoring search results on Google.cn, which they had previously agreed to do in order to be allowed to start operations in China.  They even went so far as to say that they would shut down their operations in China entirely if the government continued causing problems.  While Hong Kong is technically part of the People’s Republic of China, it operates under radically different laws regarding freedom of speech.  As is often the case with China’s Internet blocking, the accessibility of Google.cn varies by time and location.

Shut Down Services

No longer offer your services to the offending country and its Internet users.

Pros:  You stand your ground, and the offending government will (well…might) think twice before they try to muscle a foreign company again.

Cons:  You’re no longer in that country’s market.  Whatever limited information or services you were able to provide or would be able to provide are no longer available to users in that country.  Your local workers or former local workers could face trouble.

Example: Websense, Yemen, 2009. Websense, like SmartFilter, is web filtering software similar to SmartFilter.  Like SmartFilter, it is not intended or marketed to be a tool for government censorship.  Actually, it was what my high school used to ban naughty (and not so naughty) things.  But, unlike SmartFilter, Websense has an explicit anti-censorship policy under which it “does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in government-imposed censorship”.  When Websense discovered that the Yemeni ISPs were using their software to implement government-imposed mass censorship, they prohibited Yemeni ISPs from accessing updates to their software.

Ignore the Government

There are a lot of services that presumably carry content that oppressive governments wish to block and have probably requested to have taken down, but controversy rarely arises when companies just ignore those requests.  It may be useful to be linked to free speech and democracy movements, as is the case with Twitter.  Some users will undoubtably find a way to access your website, and it will be much more valuable to them if, when they get there, there is freedom of speech.

Pros:  Like the previous several options, you get some good karma by not giving in to an oppressive government.  You remain in control of your content.  By not engaging the government, the issue may not go any further, and the government may not end up enraged and looking for a way to get revenge or assert its power.

Cons:  You may get blocked.  You may get in legal trouble if you ignore government requests.

Example: Twitter.  Twitter’s strategy is not even engaging with oppressive governments about getting their website unblocked.  They focus more on working on developing ways to circumvent censorship.  As Twitter CEO Evan Williams put it, “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about.”  By continuing to host politically controversial content, Twitter has become central to many opposition movements.  Even though it is at least partially blocked in Iran, many Iranian dissidents communicate using Twitter, and a lot of information makes it out of Iran via Twitter.

I shouldn’t need to explain why it’s bad to help government oppress their citizens.  So I won’t.  But all too often, the moral repercussions of business decisions like these get looked over because they don’t have overt monetary value.  But it’s inextricably linked to reputation, which is inextricably linked to success.  Part of Google’s success is that it is seen as not doing evil.  In a world where people are increasingly wary of big corporations (see: all those “Occupy” movements right now), it’s important that a company be seen as a friend, not an enemy.

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Vigilantism

One of the most well known cases of web vigilantism in China occurred earlier this year when Jiang Nan jumped 24 floors to her death. Before she committed suicide, she wrote multiple blog entries describing the details of her husband’s affair. Chinese netizens, eager to see justice served, tracked down and publicized photos and personal information of her husband and his lover. Jiang Nan’s husband, Wang Fei, an advertising agency executive, suffered extensive invasion of his privacy and was subsequently fired from his job.  Ironically, this alarming example of a peer-surveillance state in action seems to have its roots in the exercise of free speech.

Despite the staggering changes toward modernization that have occurred, Chinese value systems have yet to modernize in line with the country’s evolving posture toward capitalism and its cooperation with the global economy. There are now an estimated 137 million Internet users in China, and the Internet has had a profound effect on the Chinese way of life and the predominantly traditional values it has embodied for over two thousand years. However, the explicit confrontation between distinctively Chinese values and the Western values of free expression and the free flow of information that drive the Internet has resulted in a dramatic conflict.

Web vigilantism is a common problem rife in all societies with access to the Internet, but is a particularly alarming phenomenon in East Asian countries, especially China. On social networking sites, blogs, and other Web 2.0 platforms, destructive groups can publish sensitive information, from private matters to personal information. These groups often threaten forms of physical violence and send damaging statements about victims to employers and manipulate search engines to highlight those statements for business associates and clients to see.

Incidents of “web lynching” and the “human flesh/renrou search engine” 人肉搜索 in East Asian countries, most notably China, demonstrate the underpinnings of a larger social and cultural problem. Acts of vigilantism on the Internet have destroyed the reputations of victims, corroded their privacy, and impaired victims’ abilities to participate in online and offline activities. The benefits of the Internet have left their mark especially in the realm of economic and financial development, but social harm has resulted from the sudden explosion of traditional values operating on a mass scale. While Confucian principles have deeply shaped both the Chinese hypersocial environment and sense of justice, the Internet has enabled transcendence of traditional social roles and a cost-effective means to collective action. These factors have combined to contribute substantially to the trend of extreme Internet vigilantism, digital witch hunts some have dubbed the “New Red Guard.

The Chinese government’s “pro-morality” stance has not deterred vigilantes and may indeed have worsened the situation. At the same time, most of the government’s efforts to promote “social harmony” on the web lay in mass censoring and filtering mechanisms—efforts that mostly center around limiting the freedom of political speech. In protecting Chinese citizens from each other would it be better to implement a more benign approach by imposing checks through tradition and thought, or does the answer lay in restructuring social norms through the law? China’s unique history and social culture mean that traditional Western approaches may not work and could even worsen the situation.

Wang Fei recently won his suit against the blogger who released his wife’s diary online and the website that published his personal information. This verdict sets an important precedent for future online vigilante victim cases, but China’s current legal system is only able to help victims attain meager compensation on a case-by-case victim; Wang Fei’s total awards totaled less than $1,000USD.  While laws could be reformed to adequately address victim compensation, efforts to control Internet vigilantism in China should also reflect a commitment to reforming citizen behavior online. In order to structure an appropriate solution that minimizes attacks on individual citizens while promoting the use of renrou as a check on political corruption , Chinese legislative and political powers must understand the relationship between China’s hypersocial environment, Confucian and traditional values, and the Internet’s influence on group behavior.