In 2006, Human Rights Watch named Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft as three of the worst offenders of freedom of speech for their role in helping to censor Chinese internet content. Google.cn (Google in China) censors the Tank Man image from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest from its search engine so that Chinese citizens searching for Tiananmen Square bring up fairly innocuous images and descriptions of Tiananmen Square and Microsoft has offered a blog tool that generates an error rejecting ˜profanity’ when a user includes the word ˜democracy’ in the title of a blog, according to Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Most deplorable has been Yahoo!’s compliance with the Chinese government in implicating several Chinese journalists for their participation in either voicing online dissent or using the internet as a means of communicating to people outside the country about the conditions they find wanting.
The study of international politics often leaves little reason to have faith in international norms and principles ”international norms and principles like the Declaration of Human Rights and the Kyoto Protocol which have a relatively weak ability to coerce signatory countries to uphold their agreements and to create real costs for nonsignatory countries to remain outside the bandwagon of signatory states. Privacy principles, established under the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD) in 1980, fail to be upheld in the modern-day, by the governments of member countries because the OECD guidelines, while well-meaning, are constructed too broadly and vaguely for there to be a clear demarcation between violating those principles and carrying out those principles while bearing other national interests in mind. And even if someone, like Human Rights Watch, could decry that a country conducting internet surveillance on its citizens was violating the OECD Privacy Guidelines, what would come of it? There exists no organ to enforce compliance with international standards like the OECD Privacy Principles.
Added to the problem of enforcement is the amorphous and quickly changing scope of cyber law, where privacy acts and precedents in communications and electronics regulations can be either ignored, discarded, or blurred because the internet is the new frontier of communications and technology, where new challenges and opportunities to interpret ”or misinterpret ”the law and prior norms abounds.
In light of all of international governance’s prior failures, I do acknowledge that in the absence of real enforcement mechanisms, the simple act of signing onto an international agreement may create reputational costs in an iterated game theory scenario that would induce a country to comply with norms and standards:
For example, if Country A were to default from an international standard that a group of other countries adhered to, Country A could be blackballed out of important trading deals that are important to its economy. Thus, there would be a strong economic incentive to stick with the agreement. This is generally how the World Trade Organization (WTO) is supposed to work. And in general, this method of using economic incentives to induce good behavior ”or democratization ”has been painted in the West as a success of neoliberalism.
But despite the iota of faith in international law that I have, I think that the strength and potential in neoliberalism lies not within the construct of international laws developed by state governments banding together in economic arrangements like the OECD or the WTO. The new frontier for international governance and the creation of new norms for good behavior, in my opinion, lies within multinational corporations. Multinational corporations span more publics than can traditional state governments and can infiltrate many more close-off societies than well-meaning non-profit humanitarian agencies that are barred access by authoritarian governments fearful of the private agendas that humanitarian agencies bring with them through the pervasive arm of market forces.
One project that I think holds particular promise is the principles project being developed under the advice of the Berkman Center of Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. By the end of 2007, several large corporations with stakes in cyber law and internet governance, including Google, Microsoft, Vodafone, and Yahoo! met with groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights in China, and Reporters Without Borders to discuss how to draft a framework intended to adjudicate the two interests that have been traditionally opposed ”generating profit and adhering to human rights.
The project is intended to follow the footsteps of Leon Sullivan, one of the fathers of the concept of corporate social responsibility who published the Sullivan Principles in 1977 to ensure nondiscrimination and the protection of human rights by companies.
Following the publication of the Sullivan Principles, the world saw a rise of corporations rising to the challenge of adopting the Sullivan Principles in the attempt to more clearly define their responsibilities to their stakeholders and their workers, and as companies bandwagoned to adopt these principles, it became a reputational cost for those companies that did not adopt the principles to be seen as legitimate by their shareholders.
I think that developing web principles is a step in the right direction for the amorphous state of internet governance. If enough major internet corporations go on board to adhere to principles that prohibit corporate complicity with internet censorship, deciding not to do business with closed information societies in China and other countries, it becomes clear that in the end, state governments will be the ones to buckle. Governments will not be able to afford the economic costs of having inferior technology and communications networks, and they will have to make significant concessions to the corporate ideologies of the companies providing technology and communications services.
This is the new frontier of internet governance ”governance by major corporations. But this is not a hegemonic rule of the Googles and the Microsofts, but governance scheme largely tempered by the democratic-minded markets which they serve. Most of the impetus for creating a principles framework came from the public backlash from stakeholders to Yahoo!’s and Google’s efforts to censor the internet in China. As human rights remains a significant concern for many stakeholders, it is clear that the market forces of neoliberalism will continue to give economic incentives for companies to adopt more socially responsible means of conducting business.