My Big Idea

by Maria from Geneva on December 12, 2003

It’s pretty vague and unformed so far, but here’s the Big Idea I came away with from the World Summit on the Information Society.

Information and communications technologies (ICT), it is now fairly safe to say, have not been the democratic panacea that many of the ‘information just wants to be free and it’ll find a way’ crowd foresaw a few years ago. In many ways (and I’m thinking here of lax data privacy and over-zealous intellectual property rights protection), ICTs have had the reverse of the effect expected by the libertarian view. ICTs bring new and often sinister opportunities for government control and repression in countries where democracy is nascent or non-existent.

But opportunities are one thing. Applications are another. The Chinas, Saudi Arabias and other authoritarian regimes could not use ICTs to spy on their citizens, block/filter/monitor their access to the internet, collate and analyse personal data in ways that are outrightly harmful, if they could not buy the technologies to do so. And who is selling them the technology? Well, many (though not exclusively) IT and equipment manufacturing companies who would never dream of being thought by their western customers of as a means of political repression.

Now let’s look at firms whose work affects the environment – say, Shell, Exon, Union Carbide or BP – and where they stood 10 or 15 years ago. Awful events in developing countries, such as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death or the Bhopal disaster, really jolted these companies into realising that what might seem to cut it abroad can look pretty grim at home. I’m somewhat dubious about the concrete achievements the whole corporate social responsibility movement has achieved. Have they really cleaned up their acts, or is it just about glossy brochures? But I do think there’s something to it, and the big firms seem to do some genuinely good things. The threat of government intervention seems to have put the fear of god into these firms. While self-regulatory efforts won’t deliver everything I might want, I recognise that they’re a good start if undertaken in good faith.

So to the ICT industry. I propose an endeavour of corporate social responsibility or an ethical code for ICT firms dealing with governments, particularly governments without functional or mature democracies. It would deal primarily with privacy and security matters – holding firms to the expectation that they not supply software or hardware to governments that would not be acceptable at home or, for example, that go against the OECD privacy or security guidelines. The trick really is, how do you work with western ICT companies to not sell the technologies of oppression to the oppresors. Or, in a world of grey, what are the guidelines and principles that they should be thinking of when doing B2G projects in non/struggling democracies?

Well, as I say, it’s a squirming little newborn of an idea. And I’m much too sleep deprived and shell shocked after the week of WSIS mayhem to really have a sense of whether something like this might fly. So please, peanut gallery, your thoughts?



Chris Bertram 12.12.03 at 9:10 pm

One problem that I see with your proposal is this: that while government surveillance and filtering is widely seen as illegitimate in democratic countries, such monitoring of employees by firms is seen as permissible. FilteringAndMonitoringCorp are going to make the argument that there are similar legitimate applications by companies within China or Saudi, and that provides a backdoor for circumventing any such code.


George 12.14.03 at 12:23 pm

You’re reminding me of a Viridian Design principle: “Design For Evil”

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