Archive for February 15th, 2006

Information Ethics: U.S. Hearing, but Global Responsibility

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Today, the US House of Representatives’ IR Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, and the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific are holding an open hearing on the question whether the Internet in China is a Tool for Freedom or Suppression. My colleague Professor John Palfrey, among the foremost Internet law & policy experts, has prepared an excellent written testimony. In his testimony, John summarizes the basic ethical dilemmas for U.S. corporations such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others who have decided to do business in countries like China with extensive filtering and surveillance regimes. John also raises the question as to what extent a code of conduct for Internet intermediaries could guide these businesses and give them a base of support for resisting abusive surveillance and filtering requests and the role academia could play in developing such a set of principles.

I’m delighted that our Research Center at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland is part of the research initiative mentioned in John’s testimony that is aimed at contributing to the development of ethical standards for Internet intermediaries. Over the past few years, a team of our researchers has explored the emergence, functionality, and enforcement of standards that seek to regulate the behavior of information intermediaries. It is my hope that this research, in one way or another, can contribute to the initiative announced today. Although the ethical issues in cyberspace are in several regards structurally different from those emerging in offline settings, I argue that we can benefit from prior experiences with and research on ethics for international businesses in general and information ethics in particular.

So far, the heated debate about the ethics of globally operating Internet intermediaries has been a debate about the practices of large and influential U.S. companies. On this side of the Atlantic, however, we should not make the mistake to think that the hard questions Palfrey and other experts will be discussing today before the above-menioned Committees are “U.S.-made” problems. Rather, the concern, challenge, and project – designing business activities that respect and foster human rights in a globalized economy with local laws and policies, including restrictive or even repressive regulatory regimes – are truly international in nature, especially in today’s information society. Viewed from that angle, it is almost surprising that we haven’t seen more constructive European contributions to this discourse. We should not forget that European Internet & IT companies, too, face tough ethical challenges in countries such as China. In that sense, the difficult, but open and transparent conversations in the U.S. are in my view an excellent model for Europe with its long-standing human rights tradition.

Update: Rebecca MacKinnon does a great, fast-speed job summarizing the written and oral testimonies. See especially her summary of and comments on the statements by Cisco, Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft.

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