Will Internet companies protect users from government oppression? Not necessarily, say experts

Will Internet companies protect users from government oppression?

Do you believe that Internet companies will protect their users from the actions of repressive governments, or compromise with them in order to maximize profits? That question was recently posed to more than 1,000 Internet experts by the Pew Center and Elon University. The consensus? Well, there isn’t one.

Of those surveyed, 51 percent said that by the year 2020, most technology companies will protect users from attacks or invasions of privacy by their governments thanks to market pressure to do so. A full 39 percent believe just the opposite will be true.

At statement from co-authors of the study Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie explains the situation:

The moral obligations and competing values of corporations have been debated since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: How do corporate leaders drive for profit maximization while ethically meeting the needs of communities and citizens?

In the age of globalization and worldwide communications revolutions, these issues have taken a new turn. 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.

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 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.

Despite the split in opinion about which direction corporations will lean in the coming years, most believe the outcome will be a mix.

“For businesses worldwide—and their shareholders—it’s about the money,” said Lee W. McKnight, a professor at Syracuse University and founder of Wireless Grids, in the survey. “But being closely associated with suppressing legitimate protest movements through use of a firm’s technology will be bad for business.”

Many of the other experts who responded to the survey made similar stipulations, with some predicting that companies will act on a case-by-case basis, while others simply try to keep their actions as quite as possible.

Which, of course, lies at the heart of the problem: We, the customers, can keep companies in check for cooperating with repressive regimes — but only if we know what they’re up to. Some, including Google, Twitter, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Sonic.net, have already made it company policy to inform users of government demands for private user data, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Others, like Facebook, keep their response to these intrusions a secret.

In an attempt to make these technology companies more honest in these issues, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced a bill, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2011, to the House of Representatives late last year. The GOFA, as it’s called, would prevent U.S. businesses “from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance,” according to the official description. Unfortunately, Smith has introduced GOFA multiple times in years past, and it is currently wallowing in a pool of congressional inaction.

Without legislation like the GOFA, we Web users have just one choice: Demand that companies offer transparency reports about what information governments request, and how they respond to those requests. Fail that, and they lose us as customers.

Even that solution is not a complete one, as it still relies on these companies to be forthcoming and honest about these interactions. In other words: We are at their mercy.