How far will tech firms go in helping repressive regimes?
Tech experts offer split verdict: Some expect the open Internet and consumer backlash will minimize cooperation with authoritarian governments; others believe the urge for profits and global reach will compel corporations to allow their tools to be used against critics of the status quo
In a new Pew Internet/Elon University survey of more than 1,000 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users, respondents were split when it came to imagining how they expect technology firms will perform between now and 2020 when confronted with situations in which some profits can be made only when they follow rules set by authoritarian governments.
These experts say they hope the drive for corporate social responsibility (CSR) will have moved forward by 2020, but many expect this will not be the case. “Most companies will publicly state that they are doing everything possible to protect citizens while making countless concessions and political decisions that will end up harming citizens,” observed danah boyd, senior researcher with Microsoft Research.
Some survey respondents predicted people will continue to innovate new technological approaches to work around restrictions. Jeffrey Alexander, senior analyst at SRI International, explained, “Far beyond platitudes like ‘don’t be evil,’ the engineers who develop new technologies will have both the inclination and incentive to design them to be resistant to central control and to undermine autocratic behaviors.”
While about half of survey participants agreed with a statement that by 2020 technology firms “will be expected to abide by a set of norms—for instance, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) citizens being attacked or challenged by their governments,” about four in ten survey participants said they expect most corporations to avoid any future loss of profits by taking “steps to minimize their usefulness as tools for political organizing by dissidents,” thus limiting communication possibilities for those who have been using the Internet to voice opposition or demand rights. Many people said they expect the future to bring a mix of the two scenarios. An anonymous respondent wrote, “Both trends will continue in a kind of yin and yang struggle. There will always be black hats and Blackwaters, and there will always be white hat hackers and Wikileaks.”
The experts surveyed noted that corporations cannot easily do right by everyone. “It’s a complicated world and these are complex technical systems that are rapidly evolving,” noted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, a co-author of the study. “Different global regions continue to be defined by different principles and principals and many of these experts believe that the future will yield mixed and situation-specific results. They were pessimistic about the prospect for any agreement on corporate norms that could always help good guys and always thwart bad guys.”
Survey respondents were addressing these questions in the fall of 2011. “The question was written with the Arab Spring and the Great Firewall of China in mind, but it was answered at the time of headlines about the Occupy movement and the Bay Area Rapid Transit shutdown of cell service to thwart rumored protests,” said Janna Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center and study co-author. “This motivated a few respondents to point out that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. The wide range of possible outcomes in the answers can be represented by these two opposing statements made by anonymous respondents: 1) ‘The development of the Internet as a complex adaptive system will continue and attempts by governments to control information will be thwarted by complexity.’ 2) ‘All governments will want a kill switch, just in case.’”
This is the sixth report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey fielded in fall 2011. The survey gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (Details can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/)
Following is a wide-ranging selection of respondents’ remarks:
“Market pressure from competition will always keep commercial operators working on behalf of authoritarian regimes. For each organization that chooses to stand up to the demands of a dictator or tyrant, another will step in to fulfill the request.” —Ross Rader, general manager at Hover and board member of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority
“In the absence of a collective initiative it seems unlikely there will be any upside for any individual company that might want to resist the demands of governments—including the US government—when it comes to squelching connection and speech. Indeed, all companies want scale and certainty, and those things come to cooperative entities. I still have hope that multistakeholder efforts, particularly at places like the OECD, will bear fruit. But it takes an awful lot of work and time for that fruit to grow.” – Susan Crawford, Harvard University professor and former White House technology policy expert
“I remain fairly optimistic…that firms that try to control content in response to government intervention will risk being abandoned in droves, and thus forced to stick to a reasonable path. We will see.” —Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher, Microsoft
“Firms will continue to resolve these issues on a case-by-case basis, usually out of sight of First Amendment advocates.” —Jeff Eisenach, managing director and principal, Navigant Economics, formerly a senior policy expert with the US Federal Trade Commission
“As cyberwarfare becomes steadily more important, nations will insist on invasive control over large computer services.” —Alex Halavais, associate professor at Quinnipiac University
“For businesses worldwide—and their shareholders—it’s about the money, but being closely associated with suppressing legitimate protest movements through use of a firm’s technology will be bad for business.” —Lee W. McKnight, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation, Syracuse University; founder of Wireless Grids
“Please, parents of the world start raising your children again and teach them about the virtue of doing good. Back to the 1950s!” — Marcel Bullinga, futurist and author of Welcome to the Future Cloud – 2025 in 100 Predictions
“Far beyond platitudes like ‘don’t be evil,’ the engineers who develop new technologies will have both the inclination and incentive to design them to be resistant to central control and to undermine autocratic behaviors. Also, dissidents are more technology-savvy than dictatorships, and they will be able to repurpose digital technologies to serve their purposes more effectively than central governments will be able to use them for surveillance and suppression. The more pertinent danger is when corporations themselves become centers of power, and they shape technologies to serve their own interests rather than protecting consumer rights. This will be a trend that will be difficult to combat at the individual or governmental level…This may enable firms to distort technological evolution to favor their interests over those of consumers.” —Jeffrey Alexander, senior policy analyst, Center for Science, Technology & Economic Development, SRI International
“Technologies of control have no intrinsic relationship restrictions. If it works on employees of businesses in democracies, it works on citizens of governments in dictatorships. Inversely, if it doesn’t work on citizens of governments in dictatorships, it doesn’t work on employees of businesses in democracies. Pick one. It’s an architectural question. Don’t say your personal moral values are that businesses have a right to control their employees but governments have no right to control their citizens. The dictatorships don’t care about your personal moral values.” —Seth Finkelstein, programmer and consultant; winner of a Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award from Electronic Frontier Foundation for groundbreaking work in analyzing content-blocking software
“Only in 2030 and beyond will individual citizens within democracies have enough artificial intelligence guiding their purchasing and voting decisions to begin to seriously enforce R2P and other corporate social responsibility activities in significant ways. In the meantime, corporations will do PR spin around these issues but will effectively be able to avoid being either an advocate of or a policer of the common citizen.” —John Smart, futurist, and president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation
“In our distributed Internet, we will never—we should never—end up with one set of principles from one governance. The fact that no one can control the Net is what makes the Net free. But we do need to discuss the principles that underlie our Net so we can point to them when governments and companies violate them and so we can give cover to good actors who try to resist control from bad governments.” – Jeff Jarvis, professor, speaker, and author of “What Would Google Do?”
“Recent events and the perceived role of social media mark a watershed, which will prevent the second scenario coming about: firms that err too much on conceding to autocratic governments will be penalized by consumers (though I doubt by government as described in the first point).” —Mark Watson, senior engineer for Netflix
“Technology firms have every incentive to cooperate with repressive regimes, and even the so-called ‘democratic’ countries will find reasons to filter and censor the Internet in the coming years. Unless some dramatic political change happens that causes people to rise up against censorship, these trends will continue indefinitely.” —Peter J. McCann, senior staff engineer for Futurewei Technologies; chair of the Mobile IPv4 Working Group of the IETF.
Respondents were allowed to keep their remarks anonymous if they chose to do so. Following are predictive statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous comments from survey participants:
“Both trends will continue in a kind of yin and yang struggle. There will always be black hats and Blackwaters, and there will always be white hat hackers and Wikileaks.”
“Domestic and international security has always been given a higher priority than individual freedoms. There is no reason to think the Internet will change this.”
“The 2010s or 2020s decade will explode in papers related to corporate responsibility. Many lectures, congresses, and acts will be developed. Declarations and compromises will be made. In the end, a new Patriot Act will come back to sweep all in the name of national security; secret services will continue monitoring communications; some organizations will still be bugging some public figures; and corporate leaders will continue doing what some members of their councils require, if it will produce money.”
“The global action will have shifted to Asia, Africa, and Latin America by 2020. The West may become the third world of the future.”
“Look at the attempts to rule the online world, by the US government in particular, through bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, the greedy moves by big corporations for copyright protection. These will be of much greater significance.”
“Even the most evil of corporations today recognizes that playing by the rules, while at the same time ‘gaming them’ is much better than flagrant disregard. I suspect all sorts of technical compliance with the letter of the law, even as I suspect as the same time much disregard of the spirit of the law.”
“This area is in flux with neither scenario likely to be reality in 2020. The debate is bound to continue and to the extent there is blocking or monitoring, new technology will likely still provide the means for the Internet activity of protestors.”
“The development of the Internet as a complex adaptive system will continue to evolve, and attempts to control information will be thwarted by complexity.”
“All governments will want to have a kill switch just in case.”
The findings reflect the reactions in an online, opt-in survey of a diverse set of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics who were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice. They were fairly evenly split when it came to imagining how they expect technology firms will perform when confronted with situations in which profits can be made only when they follow restrictive rules set by autocratic governments. A significant number of the survey participants who selected that scenario said the true outcome will be a little bit of both scenarios and many said while they chose the first scenario as a “vote” for their hope they expect the outcome will actually be the second scenario.
51% agreed with the statement:
“In 2020, technology firms with their headquarters in democratic countries will be expected to abide by a set of norms—for instance, the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) citizens being attacked or challenged by their governments. In this world, for instance, a Western telecommunications firm would not be able to selectively monitor or block the Internet activity of protestors at the behest of an authoritarian government without significant penalties in other markets.”
39% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:
“In 2020, technology firms headquartered in democratic countries will have taken steps to minimize their usefulness as tools for political organizing by dissidents. They will reason that too much association with sensitive activities will put them in disfavor with autocratic governments. Indeed, in this world, commercial firms derive significant income from filtering and editing their services on behalf of the world’s authoritarian regimes.”
Note: The survey results are based on a non-random online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited via email invitation, conference invitation, or link shared on Twitter, Google Plus or Facebook. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the people participating in this sample. The “predictive” scenarios used in this tension pair were created to elicit thoughtful responses to commonly found speculative futures thinking on this topic in 2011; this is not a formal forecast. Many respondents remarked that both scenarios will happen to a certain degree; 10% did not respond to the question.
The Imagining the Internet Center (http://www.imaginingtheInternet.org) is an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications. The center’s research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record. Imagining the Internet is directed by Janna Quitney Anderson, an associate professor of communications.
The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://wwwpewInternet.org) is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the social impact of the Internet.