Market Access at the Expense of Democratic Ideals?

This is a stylized version of the question facing a handful of corporations, including Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft and Cisco, who have to figure out how to do business in Internet-censoring markets like China.

How corporations and policy makers in the United States navigate this thorny landscape was the subject of our Digital Democracy class last night (session description here). The first half of the class provided an overview of the state of censorship globally: how states marshal moral, political and security reasons to censor content through IP blocking, DNS blocking and proxy servers tactics.

via Robert Faris and Nart Villeneuve, Access Denied (MIT Press: 2008), Ch. 1

The second half of the class was a simulation of a House of Representatives debate on H.R. 4780- The Global Online Freedom Act, a rather Draconian measure designed to impose export controls on the sale of any item "to an end user in an Internet-restricting country for the purpose, in whole or in part, of facilitating Internet censorship." We were joined for the debate by Sarah Labowitz, my colleague at the Fletcher School, and the first hire at Yahoo!'s human rights shop. Some in the class showed libertarian tendencies, arguing that it was not the prerogative of the US Government to legislate on issues related to domestic politics abroad. Others objected to the legislation for pragmatic reasons: government is too slow to keep up with the technology industry.

Regardless, the class seemed very willing to trust corporations to make the right decisions. This, to a large degree, is how the issue has played out in the real world. Last year, a group of corporations and NGOs, in consolation with Harvard's Berkman Center, started the Global Network Initiative, "a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector."

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