Canadians split on Internet censorship

Business ethics for technology companies operating in countrieswith repressive regimes are not clear cut.

Yahoo has released user identities to Chinese authorities thathave led to the jailing of dissidents; Google censors results inits China search engine; Microsoft has removed blogs written byChinese journalists in MSN Spaces; and Cisco helps the Chinesegovernment block access to Web sites by selling it networkmanagement gear.

While Canada has been spared such incidents – so far at least -industry observers here have different perspectives on the role ofcensorship and the position that IT companies should adopt on thisissue.

As a general policy, companies have to obey the laws of theland, says Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of the InformationTechnology Association of Canada (ITAC), an Ottawa-based industryassociation for the IT sector. “If countries have laws that censorinformation, technology companies don’t generally drive that. Theyaren’t there to impose one culture on another.”

Courtois says the more people have access to technology, themore likely is the development of an advanced economy. Attempts bygovernments to police a global medium such as the

Internet are unlikely to succeed in any case, he says. “Industryinsiders know you can’t keep people out entirely. Whatever wecontribute helps improve these societies, but change for more openaccess to information will have to come from within.”

In Courtois’ view, censorship is not on the same moral plane asthe human rights issues. “If a government censors Web sites – andeveryone wonders how really effective that is – it’s a far cry frompeople being tortured and killed.”

Those actions, he said, would be considered crimes by anyone,and are clearly violations of international human rights thatsupersede a country’s laws, he says. “If companies are helpingbuild torture chambers, then they are implicated. But if they’rebuilding a telecom infrastructure, they are not implicated atall.”

He says he sympathizes with companies such as Google, as theyface a difficult dilemma. “They are helping the Chinese people butthey must go through the necessary evil of complying with thegovernment. You want to be part of an effort that promotesdevelopment that will eventually force a more open system, but inthe meantime, if you put access to the Web in people’s hands, theywill find a way.”

But Gary Elijah Dann, who teaches business ethics and philosophycourses at the University of Toronto, disagrees with the logic ofthat position, pointing out that the idea at the core is the endsjustifies the means.

“Most people are apprehensive about sacrificing the lives ofinnocent people for an end that isn’t even necessary,” he says.”Here, there’s some undefined good that may be realized if we giveup 50 people jailed for posting dissident views. That kind of moralreasoning is questionable whether you’re stealing chocolate barsfor the homeless guy outside, or a Yahoo pretending to do it forthe greater good of the Chinese people.”

Dann also disagrees that a company must comply with the laws ofthe land. “On what basis should Yahoo, a company not based inChina, be forced to comply with Chinese ideology?

According to the UN’s declaration of human rights, mostcountries believe there is a responsibility not to be complicitwith a rogue country’s laws, for example, the Nazis.”

Nor does he buy the argument that U.S. technology companiesoperating in China are doing more good than harm by being there,and are motivated by a desire to help the Chinese people.

“Let’s cut away the bluster. Because of the financial issues atstake, Yahoo and the other companies are ready to out thosedissidents. That’s morally reprehensible.”

The American public is sharply divided over the censorshipissue, according to a recent survey conducted by the PonemonInstitute, a privacy and reputation think-tank based in Elk Rapids,Mich.

About 47 per cent of respondents said they believe contentcompanies should not allow such censorship, while 40 per centbelieved companies should comply with restrictions.

Moreover, a significant percentage appears to agree with the”ends justifies the means” argument. And 54 per agreed that it isbetter for the Chinese people to have access to information fromGoogle, Yahoo and MSN, even if they’re subject to governmentcensorship.

“We put that question in our survey because it is an argumentthat is often raised, but I don’t agree with that position at all.It is a slippery slope that may wind up legitimizing unethicalpractices,” says Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute.”If you espouse an ethical principle for one country, then applyanother one in other countries, that’s unethical practice in myview. You must be morally consistent in order to be moral.”

To whatever extent respondents were willing to bend moral codesto achieve an end, the vast majority also drew lines in the sand.About 77 per cent agreed that compliance with censorship rules doesnot mean that companies should help identify individuals who accessbanned content.

Ponemon believes this finding reveals an implicit condemnationof Yahoo, which has provided identifying information to Chineseauthorities that has led to jailings.

Google’s position is more nuanced by comparison. The companysays it is offering Internet search only in China, and not e-mail,blogging, messaging or other services that might put it in theposition of having to provide personally identifiable informationto authorities. In addition, the company does not keep any searchlogs in China, and stores all other information in the U.S.

The Ponemon Institute is conducting another tracking study todetermine if technology companies involved in China are sufferinglosses in reputation and stock value in the wake of thecontroversy. “The results are not all in yet, but from what I’mseeing thus far, Google is being viewed more favorably than theothers, and is perceived as more ethical,” says Ponemon.

But he adds that all three have suffered some loss ofstanding.

The preliminary findings show that people place the twocompanies’ positions and actions on different moral planes.

“It is one thing to put content filtering in that doesn’t returnresults for banned search terms, and another when results areprovided but in doing so, the user may be revealed toauthorities.

Ethically, these are two issues and worlds apart in terms ofconsequences to human beings,” says Ponemon.

He believes people were impressed that Google refused to give upsearch information subpoenaed by the U.S. Justice Departmentearlier this year to buttress a defense of a federal

Internet pornography law that had been overturned by an appealscourt. “While that may not play well with the religious right, itis a consistent position,” he says.

Ponemon believes the censorship debacle is the start of a largerand more important discussion.

Decisions made today about the Internet will have far-rangingconsequences in the future.

Universal tenets are needed because they will truly apply toeveryone on the globe, since virtually everyone will be able toaccess the Web in the near future.

“I don’t think this is about Google or Yahoo, it’s about comingup with a framework for dealing with these issues,” says Ponemon.”Do we want to create universal ethical standards for all theorganizations in the technology industry? Is it better to have aversion of Google that’s less bad than what the Chinese governmentwould come up with? Which country’s rules are better? I’m not surewhat the answers are, but we should be thinking about this.”

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