By Stephen Kaufman
Companies that sell products and services for use with the Internet have a responsibility to the public to try to prevent their technology from being used to stifle human rights and free expression, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.
Speaking at a conference on Internet freedom in The Hague, Clinton said some corporations have not lived up to that responsibility in recent years and have provided sensitive information to governments about political dissenters, as well as shut down social networking accounts of activists engaged in political debates.
“Today’s news stories are about companies selling the hardware and software of repression to authoritarian governments,” Clinton said. When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agencies of countries like Syria or Iran, or to the regime of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, “there can be no doubt that it will be used to violate rights,” she said.
The choices tech and software companies make “have an impact on how information flows or doesn’t flow on the Internet and global networks. They also have an impact on what governments can and can’t do,” she said.
In some cases, companies cannot foresee that their products and services will be used as tools of oppression, but in other cases they can, Clinton said.
Governments that are concerned about technology being used to suppress human rights can respond with sanctions and export controls, but the secretary said such measures can provide only a certain amount of protection because dual-use technology and third-party sales can overcome them.
She urged companies themselves to be proactive and to think critically about who may be interested in their technology and how it can be used.
“You can’t wait for instructions,” she said. “In the 21st century, companies have to act before they find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy.”
Companies are able to decide where they will do business, research ways of preventing the misuse or modification of their technology, and warn consumers about potential dangers. There are also resources and guidelines from both the public and private sectors that are available to help companies work through these issues, Clinton said.
But by shirking their responsibility, corporations not only risk harming their brand name and reputation, but will themselves be hurt wherever global networks are constrained.
“We cannot let the short-term gains that all of us think are legitimate and worth seeking jeopardize the openness of the Internet and the human rights of individuals who use it without it coming back to haunt us all in the future,” Clinton said.
KEEP THE GLOBAL NETWORK OR HAVE GOVERNMENT-CONTROLLED “DIGITAL BUBBLES?”
The secretary also warned that the single global Internet network that people all over the world are using may be at risk.
Some are calling for its replacement by a system that would allow individual governments to centralize control of the Internet, make their own rules for it, and be able to control what information and content their citizens are allowed to access, as well as possibly render it inoperable with other networks and prevent their citizens from having contact with outsiders.
“Governments have never met a voice or a public sphere that they didn’t want to control at some point or another. They want to control what gets printed in newspapers, who gets into universities, what companies get oil contracts, what churches and [nongovernmental organizations] get registered, where citizens can gather — so why not the Internet?” Clinton said.
Those calling for change are seeking to create “national barriers in cyberspace,” and this “would be disastrous for Internet freedom,” she said.
If individual governments are given free rein to control what their citizens can see online and whom they can communicate with, Clinton said, it would deeply affect the Internet’s current dynamism, which encourages free expression and entrepreneurship.
“In this scenario, the Internet would contain people in a series of digital bubbles rather than connecting them with a global network” and create “echo chambers rather than an innovative global marketplace of ideas,” she said.