Let’s say you run an internet company whose primary function is to help individual locate and access information available on the World Wide Web. Let’s say your mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” and you’re very good at it, processing over half of every Web search performed in the United States.
- freedom of speech and freedom of the press are fundamental human rights, and free use of the Internet is protected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”
- the rapid provision of full and uncensored information through the Internet has become a major industry in the United States, and one of its major exports, and
- political censorship of the Internet degrades the quality of that service and ultimately threatens the integrity and viability of the industry itself, both in the United States and abroad
- some authoritarian foreign governments such as the Governments of Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam block, restrict, and monitor the information their citizens attempt to obtain
- technology companies in the United States such as Google, that operate in countries controlled by authoritarian governments have an obligation to comply with the principles of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
- technology companies in the United States have [often] failed to develop adequate standards by which they can conduct business with authoritarian governments while protecting human rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression
If you accept these premises, and you’re a company dedicated to making the world’s information accessible and useful to all citizens — while not being evil — it would be appropriate for you to take certain measures to “develop adequate standards by which they can conduct business with authoritarian governments while protecting human rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
To accomplish this, you might reasonably institute policies to help protect freedom of access to the Internet, which would include the following minimum standards:
- Data that can identify individual users should not be hosted in Internet restricting countries, where political speech can be treated as a crime by the legal system.
- The company will not engage in pro-active censorship.
- The company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures.
- Users will be clearly informed when the company has acceded to legally binding government requests to filter or otherwise censor content that the user is trying to access.
- Users should be informed about the company’s data retention practices, and the ways in which their data is shared with third parties.
- The company will document all cases where legally-binding censorship requests have been complied with, and that information will be publicly available.
Seems reasonable, and the right thing to do.
Now, given all of this, it is apparent your company is concerned with how your policies and practices might impact human rights across the globe. So, even if you’re not comfortable committing yourself to the above standards (which would be surprising given your philosophy), you certainly would want to at least:
- form a Board Committee on Human Rights,
- provide said committee with funds for operating expenses,
- adopt regulations or guidelines to govern said Committee’s operations,
- empower said Committee to solicit public input and to issue periodic reports to shareholders and the public, at reasonable expense and excluding confidential information, including but not limited to an annual report on the implications of company policies, above and beyond matters of legal compliance, for the human rights of individuals in the US and worldwide
That seems reasonable. Of course, you might be concerned about how such a committee might impact company business decisions, so you would be sure to note that the formation of a Board Committee on Human Rights wouldn’t restrict the power of the Board of Directors to manage the business and affairs of the company.
Simply put, the Board Committee on Human Rights would review and make policy recommendations regarding human rights issues raised by the company’s activities and policies. It could be an effective mechanism for addressing the human rights implications of the company’s activities and policies as they emerge anywhere in the world.
These two proposals — taking a stance against Internet censorship and forming a Board Committee on Human Rights — seem reasonable, right? Especially for a company pledged to not be evil?
Well, two shareholder proposals suggest Google take these very actions: Proposal 4 offers the anti-censorship language outlined above, while Proposal 5 suggestions the formation of a Board Committee on Human Rights with the duties and restrictions I note here.
Google is recommending that shareholders vote AGAINST each proposal. (This is the second time Google has opposed the anti-censorship proposal.)
I urge all shareholders in Google Inc. to vote FOR these reasonable and ethical proposals when they receive their proxy statements.