Options for Companies Dealing with Internet Censorship Abroad – by “Lake M”

The border-blurring brought on by the Internet must just be driving oppressive regimes nuts.  How are you supposed to control what information people get their hands on when it’s coming from the other side of the globe at the speed of light from people beyond the reach of your thugs and laws?  Well, many such regimes have adopted the tactics of similarly-minded paranoid conservative parents who don’t know what to make of the Internet.  If the source is beyond their control, they can at least attempt to block it at the point of entry.

This puts the foreign companies providing the content in a bit of a pickle.  They don’t want to lose their market share in the country in question, but they (hopefully) don’t want to facilitate oppression either.  Or, they don’t want to look like they’re facilitating oppression.  In fact, foreign companies are in a better position than citizens of the country in question, since they’re able to use their economic clout to influence policies without the same risks and restrictions that domestic actors face.  So, striking a balance between these concerns is of great importance to the success and reputation of the company as well as the human rights situation in the oppressive country.  Here are some of the options foreign companies have:

Cooperate & Facilitate

Do whatever the oppressive government wants you to.  Stop doing things they want you to stop, and give them the information they demand.

Pros:  You get to continue operating in the country.  Market share and profit and stuff.

Cons:  You’re doing evil, and everyone will hate you for it.  You could also get in legal trouble in the US.

Example: Yahoo!, China, 2004. Pretty much the worst possible way to handle this sort of situation.  In 2004, the Chinese government released a document warning journalists about reporting on sensitive topics because of the looming 15th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests.  Journalist Shi Tao sent a brief of this document to the Asia Democracy Foundation via his Yahoo! e-mail account.  The Chinese government found out and demanded Yahoo! hand over information about the sender.  Yahoo! did it without even asking what it was for.  As a result, Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison.  Yahoo! was criticized by every human rights organization in the book.  Congress investigated the incident, and later reprimanded Yahoo! for not giving full details to them regarding the incident.  Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) told Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang, “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”  Yahoo! was sued in the US on behalf of Shi Tao and another journalist, and they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.  There still exists a campaign to boycott Yahoo! because of this, and I still refrain from using Yahoo! services.  Oh, did I mention they did the same thing two years earlier, resulting in another ten year prison sentence for journalist Wang Xiaoning?  And were complicit in helping to convict Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun, two other government critics?

Bahrain's blocked website page

Example: SmartFilter, Middle East.  McAfee’s SmartFilter software has been used by governments in Tunisia, Sudan, Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to block certain Internet content from reaching users.  They make no effort to prevent or prohibit governments from using this software, which is allegedly aimed at homes and schools.  The software includes a database of more than 25 million blockable websites in various categories.  Such filtering databases as well as selective algorithms have been shown time and again to be massively flawed in the categories they attribute to various websites.  But, instead of simply inconveniencing a student who wants to research safe sex, AIDS, or religious tolerance (God forbid), it alters the information that can make it to an entire country of Internet users.  The OpenNet Initiative also accused Iran of using SmartFilter, though the US’s embargo against Iran would prohibit the sale or licensing of this software to Iran.  The company has said that Iran pirated their software.  Some say Iran now has its own censorship software.  While McAfee doesn’t market their software to oppressive regimes or for the purpose of mass censorship, some selectivity in who they license their software to or the scale at which they allow it to be implemented wouldn’t be a bad idea.  It wouldn’t stop governments from pirating it, but at least it would help McAfee from appearing complicit in censorship.

Unfortunately, there are way more examples of this response than any of the responses below.

Cooperate Less

Set a limit to your capitulation while acknowledging the authority of the host government as set out by its laws.

Pros:  You might get to continue operating in the country without giving in entirely.  You would also help make it clear that there is a limit to what governments can force foreign Internet companies to do.

Cons:  The government might still prevent you from operating there.  You might not get the benefit of being seen as standing up to oppression.

Example: YouTube, Turkey, 2007. The Turkish government mandated that Turkish telecom providers block access to YouTube because it hosted some videos that were said to insult Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel of Google, which owns YouTube, decided that Google would block Turkish IP addresses from accessing videos that clearly violated Turkish law.  Later, though, a Turkish prosecutor demanded that Google block users anywhere in the world from accessing such videos.  This is where Google drew the line, and they refused to capitulate to the unreasonable request.  YouTube remained blocked in Turkey until 2010 when Turkey’s Transport Minister, in charge of Internet issues, lifted the ban, proclaiming that “common sense prevailed”.  So, despite the dismay and limited success of the conservative elements that demanded the ban, internal pressure and the realization of YouTube’s importance prevailed.

Move Services Out of the Offending Country

The more of a company’s operations that physically take place within the offending country, the more power the government can assert over the company.  Partnering with local firms presents similar problems.  Locating data storage in particular outside of the country allows in-country users to move their data farther from the reach of their government.  There are few examples of companies making this kind of drastic business change, but the choices companies make before starting business in other countries affect their relationship to freedom of speech controversies in the future.  For example, Google and Microsoft don’t partner with Chinese companies (though they have their own workers in China), whereas Skype and Yahoo do, and the latter companies have lost much more face in controversies surrounding censorship in China.

Pros:  It’s likely that the offending country’s government will block your services anyways, but at least the option is there should they choose to unblock them in the future.  There’s also the advantage of preserving your reputation and being seen as not doing evil.

Cons:  Your services might very well get blocked.  Your local workers or former local workers could face trouble.

Example: Google, China, 2010. When Google discovered hacking attempts targeted at the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, which would put those activists in great danger, they reacted harshly.  They announced that they would stop censoring search results on Google.cn, which they had previously agreed to do in order to be allowed to start operations in China.  They even went so far as to say that they would shut down their operations in China entirely if the government continued causing problems.  While Hong Kong is technically part of the People’s Republic of China, it operates under radically different laws regarding freedom of speech.  As is often the case with China’s Internet blocking, the accessibility of Google.cn varies by time and location.

Shut Down Services

No longer offer your services to the offending country and its Internet users.

Pros:  You stand your ground, and the offending government will (well…might) think twice before they try to muscle a foreign company again.

Cons:  You’re no longer in that country’s market.  Whatever limited information or services you were able to provide or would be able to provide are no longer available to users in that country.  Your local workers or former local workers could face trouble.

Example: Websense, Yemen, 2009. Websense, like SmartFilter, is web filtering software similar to SmartFilter.  Like SmartFilter, it is not intended or marketed to be a tool for government censorship.  Actually, it was what my high school used to ban naughty (and not so naughty) things.  But, unlike SmartFilter, Websense has an explicit anti-censorship policy under which it “does not sell to governments or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are engaged in government-imposed censorship”.  When Websense discovered that the Yemeni ISPs were using their software to implement government-imposed mass censorship, they prohibited Yemeni ISPs from accessing updates to their software.

Ignore the Government

There are a lot of services that presumably carry content that oppressive governments wish to block and have probably requested to have taken down, but controversy rarely arises when companies just ignore those requests.  It may be useful to be linked to free speech and democracy movements, as is the case with Twitter.  Some users will undoubtably find a way to access your website, and it will be much more valuable to them if, when they get there, there is freedom of speech.

Pros:  Like the previous several options, you get some good karma by not giving in to an oppressive government.  You remain in control of your content.  By not engaging the government, the issue may not go any further, and the government may not end up enraged and looking for a way to get revenge or assert its power.

Cons:  You may get blocked.  You may get in legal trouble if you ignore government requests.

Example: Twitter.  Twitter’s strategy is not even engaging with oppressive governments about getting their website unblocked.  They focus more on working on developing ways to circumvent censorship.  As Twitter CEO Evan Williams put it, “The most productive way to fight that is not by trying to engage China and other governments whose very being is against what we are about.”  By continuing to host politically controversial content, Twitter has become central to many opposition movements.  Even though it is at least partially blocked in Iran, many Iranian dissidents communicate using Twitter, and a lot of information makes it out of Iran via Twitter.

I shouldn’t need to explain why it’s bad to help government oppress their citizens.  So I won’t.  But all too often, the moral repercussions of business decisions like these get looked over because they don’t have overt monetary value.  But it’s inextricably linked to reputation, which is inextricably linked to success.  Part of Google’s success is that it is seen as not doing evil.  In a world where people are increasingly wary of big corporations (see: all those “Occupy” movements right now), it’s important that a company be seen as a friend, not an enemy.

ADVERTISING A STATEMENT: Google AdWords with agendas – by “Evin M”

The PR machine at BP has picked up on a recent trend, which utilizes the Google AdWords service as a soapbox from which to launch a damage-control blitz.

Open another window and Google “BP.”

Odds are, you found this too. How about “oil spill”?

Same link? Me too.

Google AdWords is the moneymaking machine behind the world’s most popular search engine. This product selectively displays advertisements alongside search results, allowing advertisers to market to users already interested in specific terms. AdWords launched in 2000, and has since become more than just another billboard. By associating text advertisements with search terms, AdWords clients are able to deliver increasingly sophisticated messages to intended audiences—as BP is demonstrating right now.    Never before has a campaign had this potential to target its message with such speed and precision–though that potential comes with a price tag, one that is subject to open bidding.  In addition to advertising themselves in a more traditional sense, Google AdWords now empowers wealthy companies to command eyeballs searching for select keywords toward editorial content.

In September 2009, AdWords became a platform for PR damage control when the front page of the New York Times reported that New Zealand fisheries were overharvesting the hoki, a species known to most palates as the McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish. In response to this article, the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council bought up Google AdWords like new zealand hoki, hoki new york times, and William Broad (the author of the article). These search terms triggered links to a page refuting the Times’ accusations, and included emails from the Times science editor as well. Jim McCarthy of PR firm Counterpoint Strategies, who spearheaded this spin technique, has applied a similar strategy on behalf of the National Fisheries Institute and the Formaldehyde Council, in reaction to journalists’ criticism of these organizations. He seems to have started a trend by representing his clients with Google AdWords and links.

How Do We Fight Bad EULAs? – by “Michael L”

Not actually about fighting bad EULAs, but cmon, xckd is always a good thing.
Not actually about fighting bad EULA's, but c'mon, xckd is always a good thing.

After doing this week’s reading, it’s easy to get the feeling that there’s little we can do to fight bad EULAs. And let’s be honest, there isn’t much–at least for the individual user. That said, recently there have been cases where popular services have changed their terms of service because of the public’s distaste for a few egregious terms within them. Remember earlier this year when Facebook changed it’s TOS to say that they kept the rights to your content even if you got rid of your account? People got mad, they complained, and Facebook caved and went back to it’s old TOS. Similarly, there was a situation last summer in which it appeared Google’s Chrome browser’s terms of service gave Google the rights to anything you sent through the browser–again, after people complained, it was changed. While these situations were hardly the same (it seems Google’s TOS problems were the result of a mistake, whereas Facebook’s seemed more deliberate), they share in common the fact that the problem was fixed after enough people complained about it. This of course isn’t an entirely satisfying solution, but it is good to know that if people get angry enough, companies do respond.

The other important step one should take as a consumer is to actually make some attempt to read agreements before clicking through them–even if it’s just a quick skim. While there’s not much you can do if you don’t like the terms (except perhaps give your business to someone else), at least you’ll be aware of them. And sometime’s you’ll be pleasantly surprised (I’m a big fan of Google’s affirmation of my intellectual property rights, something about which I never would have known if I didn’t read the terms). If you want to be extra vigilant, you could even check the EFF’s “TOSBack” site from time to time: it’s a site that tracks changes to various terms of service agreements (there’s even an RSS feed if you’re uber-nerdy). After all, someone’s got to notice harmful changes to these agreements in order for people can get angry about them.

Lastly, I’d be up for creating some sort of EULA hall of shame, much like the EFF’s DMCA takedown hall of shame. While there already seems to be a site that attempts to do this, it’s far from well done or thorough (check it out at http://www.eulahallofshame.com/). Such a site, if done well, would be useful in that it would draw attention to particularly bad abuses of licensing agreements. And, after all, ridiculing sketchy practices by companies is fun. Let me know in the comments if you’re interested.

In honor of Cory Doctorow, I’d like to end this blog post in the same way he has ended several of his about blog posts EULAs (and I can because Boing Boing uses a CC-BY-NC license, I’m giving him credit [Thanks Cory!], and I’m gonna go ahead and say this blog post is CC-BY-NC-SA, since I can’t seem to find a licence for the site as a whole):

READ CAREFULLY. By reading this blog, you agree, on behalf of your employer, to release me from all obligations and waivers arising from any and all NON-NEGOTIATED agreements, licenses, terms-of-service, shrinkwrap, clickwrap, browsewrap, confidentiality, non-disclosure, non-compete and acceptable use policies (“BOGUS AGREEMENTS”) that I have entered into with your employer, its partners, licensors, agents and assigns, in perpetuity, without prejudice to my ongoing rights and privileges. You further represent that you have the authority to release me from any BOGUS AGREEMENTS on behalf of your employer.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Google unveils “unprecedented” privacy dashboard – by “Samuel D”

Much has been made of the dangers of trusting all your private data to Google. Not only does the search giant host your emails and contact lists, but your entire search history, your blog posts, your documents, your YouTube videos, and even your phone records. In response to growing concerns as to what they might do with all your data, Google released the Google Privacy Dashboard this week–claiming to be the “first Internet company” to offer such a product. The official blog post explains:

Over the past 11 years, Google has focused on building innovative products for our users. Today, with hundreds of millions of people using those products around the world, we are very aware of the trust that you have placed in us, and our responsibility to protect your privacy and data. Transparency, choice and control have become a key part of Google’s philosophy, and today, we’re happy to announce that we’re doing even more.

The Dashboard aims to give users greater transparency and control over their data. Users log in to their account and can view exactly what data Google hosts from over twenty products. For each product, the Dashboard provides direct links to the privacy settings for that service. Google concludes, “The scale and level of detail of the Dashboard is unprecedented, and we’re delighted to be the first Internet company to offer this — and we hope it will become the standard.”

Given Google’s grand proclamations about the groundbreaking Dashboard, response to the announcement has been subdued at best. Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has been one of the most vocal opponents to Google’s privacy policies. The organization said the Dashboard was a step in the right direction, but wanted Google to give “the ability to stop being tracked by the company and to delete information associated with their computer’s IP address from the Google servers.” One advocate added, “If Google really wanted to give users control over their privacy it would give consumers the ability to be anonymous from the company and its advertisers in crucial areas such as search data and online behavior.” The group suggested that Google added a “Make Me Anonymous” or “Don’t Track” button to each service listed in the dashboard.

Outside of advocacy groups, response to the Dashboard was mostly negative. Tech blog Mashable wrote, “Sure, it’s nice to have all these in one place, should you ever want to review all your private information stored at Google at once, but there’s nothing really new about this list; you could even call it a privacy-related compilation. Unfortunately, it’s also an unpleasant reminder of just how much data you’re giving out to Google (and other online services).” Valleywag noted, “But, really, it just scares the crap out of you. Google knows all.”

The Dashboard clearly was not received as Google anticipated–it certainly is only seen as the first step in the right direction. Will they allow users to remain anonymous and prevent data from being attached to their IP address? Will they allow users to instantly delete all their data from Google’s servers? Would they allow the police to subpoena access to a user’s Dashboard? Only time will tell how Google will live up to its promise of “choice and control.”

– Google Dashboard explained on YouTube.

– Check out what Google knows about you here: www.google.com/dashboard

Free and Proprietary Software: Google’s Balancing Act – by “Eric F”

Free Software has pushed itself into the spotlight with Mozilla Firefox and Linux.  Businesses, while wary of its philosophy, are beginning to understand its usefulness.  Google, notably, has tried to work closely with the open source community, as both an user and a contributor.

One of their most recent projects, the Android operating system for mobile phones, was built by Google and then released under the Apache license to the open source community.  Android was initially met with some controversy, especially given its licensing.  Instead of licensing under GPL, Google chose the Apache license, which allows for proprietary modifications be made to Android, so long as the copyright notice and disclaimer are preserved.  Android was released in Q4 2008 and Google has since benefited from the work of programmers, who have developed ‘mods’ aiming to increasing Android’s functionality.

However, on September 25th of this year, one of the Android community’s most prominent ‘modders,’ Steve Kondik, received a Cease and Desist letter from Google.  Steve Kondik had been distributing a ROM called Cyanogen, which was built from the Android framework.  The problem lay not in that Kondik was distributing Android, which was open source, but that he was distributing Google’s core, but proprietary, apps, Gmail, Google Maps, etc.  These apps were part of the “Google Experience” phones and were licensed through the phone manufacturers.  Therefore, while Cyanogen could be continued to be developed and distributed, Google’s apps would need to be removed and anyone who installed Cyanogen would be left without them.  Normally, this would be a minor issue.  However, Google’s apps were central to the Android experience, with the average user expecting  Google’s apps to come baked in.  Without them, any development would be crippled.

Since, Google has experienced a tremendous backlash on the Android community.  While everyone assents to Google’s legal right and its self interest (Google, in a blog post responding to the controversy, has stated that, “Unauthorized distribution of this software harms us just like it would any other business, even if it’s done with the best of intentions.”), many insist that leaving developers such as Kondik alone is better for everyone, especially Google’s reputation among developers.

This issue has clarified the important difference between free software and open source.  And while this issue may have hurt Google’s reputation or even dampened developer enthusiasm, it is important to remember that mobile networks remain extremely closed and manufacturers, as they tentatively take steps towards an open source platform, are another key part of innovation.  Google’s demonstration of its willingness to protect proprietary software on this open system may ensure that more devices are developed for Android, thus increasing its relevance and hopefully its market share.

The resolution to this particular story has been predominantly positive.  Developers, including Cyanogen, have formed the Open Android Alliance, which is dedicated to developing open source alternatives to Google’s primary applications.  Kondik, himself, blogged on the Cyanogen site that “[a] lot of people are helping to work many of these issues out, notably the guys from Google (Dan and JBQ) who manage the open-source project.”

Given the community of developers and Google’s private interests, conflicts were bound to happen.  Yet, the compromise that Google has struck – making its rights clear while working the community – seems to be the right way forward.  Android will continue to be developed in ways outside of Google’s control, but will nonetheless increase user usage of the internet and, by extension, Google’s services.  And the ordinary customers, outside of the open source community, who have never heard of Android and know of ‘open source’ only as a catch phrase, will not care, so long as Android remains a good user experience.  As stated in our Two Bits reading, “Giving away the Communicator source code in 1998 endeared Netscape to geeks and confused investors; it was ignored by customers.”