Human rights risks and strategies in new markets – herding cute cats?

While much of the material on the internet and social media may seem trivial, its power as a tool for political mobilisation was evident during the Arab Spring.  Ethan Zuckerman’s ‘cute cats’ theory posits that while Web 2.0 may have been designed for people to share pictures of cute cats, it can still have a powerful role in political movements.  People who would ordinarily distance themselves from political issues can become politically mobilised when a government restricts their access to their ‘cute cats’.  The habit of sharing everyday thoughts and photos with the world can also become powerful when individuals are in an environment where access to information and sharing of opinions is being restricted.

While commentators love to dispute the importance of the role of social networks and the internet in revolutions (Sarah Joseph offers an interesting summary), there seems to be a strong case that these products can have a beneficial role in developing countries and societies in transition.  However, the principle of ‘first do no harm’ is also relevant here.  Are there times when a company’s presence in a country is doing more harm than good?  And are there steps that a company can take to ensure that the benefits outweigh the detriments?

Google recently advised users in mainland China on some strategies for obtaining better search results by identifying search terms that may ’cause connection issues’.  They ingenuously note that their engineers have looked at Google’s systems and cannot find any problems.  They then proceed to offer some helpful workarounds (which will presumably work until the Chinese Government changes its censorship filters).  Just this week, Google announced that it will advise users when it suspects that they’re the target of a ‘state-sponsored attack’.  Contrast this with Weibo, a China-based microblogging site with 300 million users, which has a code of conduct that explicitly restricts users from posting messages that ‘spread rumours’, ‘threaten China’s honour’ or ‘call for illegal protests or mass gatherings’.

While the wisdom of Google’s retreat from mainland China to Hong Kong SAR may seem self-evident now, was it necessarily the wrong decision to enter the Chinese market in 2005 on the basis of the available information?  At what point does it become unacceptable to be in a market where there are restrictions on human rights such as the freedom of expression?  This week has seen a flurry of media attention over the conviction of a website manager on the basis of 10 lese majeste statements that were posted by others on the Prachatai weboard in 2008.  Human rights organisations are sounding alarms over the potential for the Thai Government’s strict approach to liability of ISPs and web moderators to significantly stifle the freedom of expression.  Is it still acceptable for US web companies to be operating in Thailand?

Perhaps a crucial point for determining when a web company is doing more harm than good in a particular market is when the country’s government goes beyond requiring the foreign company to assist in censoring content and requires assistance or uses the company’s product in identifying perpetrators.  It was when Google suspected the Chinese Government of hacking their system that Google drew the line and declared that their search engine would no longer comply with the Chinese government’s censorship laws and beat a hasty retreat to Hong Kong, where government censorship is less pernicious.  Social media can help to link like-minded activists and facilitate sharing of information or planning for gatherings, but it can become a frighteningly powerful tool in the hands of a repressive government.  Other indications that a company may need to change the way in which it operates in a particular jurisdiction include when their local employees are targeted.  The structure of the company needs to be such that it offers the greatest protection not only for users but also for company employees who must live and work in that country.  What steps then can a company take to minimise the risks to employees and users in countries with repressive governments?

One of the most common risk minimisation strategies is for a company to base its servers outside of that jurisdiction.  This makes it more difficult for that country’s government to compulsorily access the company’s information.  In order to access information, the government would have to work with the government of the country where the servers are located.  Depending on the type of information sought and the nature of the relationship between the two countries, this may either be comparatively straightforward or next to impossible.  The value of this risk minimisation strategy depends to a large degree on the protections in the host country’s legal system.  This is one of the strategies that Yahoo! adopted when entering the Vietnamese market; its servers for its Vietnamese language searches are in Singapore.  Another, complementary strategy that Yahoo! adopted was to specify in its terms of service that use is governed by the laws of Singapore.

These sorts of initiatives are a welcome indication that web companies are recognising the human rights implications that their presence in a particular country can have.  It’s a tough area to navigate, but there seems to be genuine efforts being made.  Of course, it is possible that web companies really have no choice in the matter.  There is no hiding for an web company – interconnected users across the world watch the every move of companies such as Google and Twitter and will happily harness these technologies to pressure them to take responsibility for their actions if they are falling short.

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