Perspective: Companies need guidance to face censors abroad

John Palfrey and Jonathan Zittrain have published a wonderful opinion piece at CNet about how Internet companies struggle with certain “gray zones” of complicity with oppressive regimes and their desire to filter and censor Web content. They try to provide answers to the question “what’s a corporation to do” when confronted with requests that are “squarely at odds with the law, norms or ethics of the corporation’s home country”:

Should a search engine agree to censor its search results as a condition of doing business in a new place? Should an e-mail service provider turn over the name of one of its subscribers to the government of a foreign state without knowing what the person is said to have done wrong? Should a blog service provider code its application so as to disallow someone from typing a banned term into a subject line?

They call for companies to work together to come up with “a common, voluntary code of conduct to guide the activities of individual firms in regimes that carry out online censorship and surveillance”:

The code that this group develops will most likely set out broad, common principles. These principles ought to contain enough detail to inform users about what to expect and to hold the companies to a meaningful standard, but without being so prescribed as to make the code impossible to implement from company to company and from country to country–especially in a fast-changing technological environment. This ever-changing context means that the code must continually evolve, taking on new challenges to speech and privacy, and ensuring that companies’ responses are both dynamic and treated as internally driven organizational priorities. The code should also provide a road map for when a company might refuse to engage in regimes that put it in a position where it cannot comply with both the code and with local laws.

Palfrey and Zittrain are part of such efforts already in progress: Google, Microsoft, Vodafone, Yahoo and TeliaSonera are actively working together on a code in conjunction with various NGOs and academic groups. It will be interesting to see where this leads…

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