By Jord Strohl
A code of conduct to protect online free speech and privacy in restrictive countries was signed by major technology companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. The involvement of these three power playing internet companies dates back to 2008, and they hoped that other companies would follow in their lead of a rallying moment for a core cause. Noticeably absent from the free speech pact are social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. All of the participating companies that signed the free speech pact are American companies; There is a void in the global initiative of advocating the protection of free speech. Although Facebook and Twitter are widely used by large audiences and activists in other countries in the Middle East and all over the world, they are not involved in this protection of free speech pact. Because free speech laws and the First Amendment only applies to the United States and are not global laws, there is a controversy on whether or not companies who have signed the free speech pact (Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft) have the adequate power and policies to even address the privacy and free speech issues. It is up to independent auditors to examine and interpret whether or not the companies adhere to government demands for user information and to decide whether they store users’ data in countries where free speech is protected. Susan Morgan, the executive director of the Global Network initiative, said that, “Recent events really show that the issues of freedom of expression and privacy are relevant to companies across the board in the technology sector, things really seem to be accelerating.” Facebook and Twitter have made a positive impact on freedom by highlighting the crucial role technology can play in the world’s most closed societies, which leaders of the initiative say makes their efforts even more important.
The code of conduct states that companies must try “to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression” and protect user privacy when demands by government “compromise privacy in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.” Although it sounds like companies must hold fast to these requirements, there is some wiggle room. Companies that abide by a country’s censorship requirements are able to remain in compliance with the code of conduct as long as they disclose it. The main idea of the free speech pact was to include as many internet companies as possible in order to create a greater influence and have more credibility. The companies who decided to refrain from signing the code of conduct have done so for reasons such as fearing the auditing process and not seeing any financial benefit from doing so.
A spokesman for Facebook, Andrew Noyes, did not comment directly on the topic of the free speech pact but says that, “As Facebook grows, we’ll continue to expand our outreach and participation, but it’s important to remember that our global operations are still small, with offices in only a handful of countries.” Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have had a huge affect on freedom of speech around the world, but the issues of privacy and free speech are still not black and white, especially when it comes to crossing country borders.
In order to be more influential, more companies will have to be added to the free speech pact. The initiative is modeled on previous voluntary efforts aimed at self-regulation and this one is no different as it came to life at a time when Internet companies were seeking to polish their image and potentially ward off legislation. The idea of the pact is to help companies do the right thing instead of having to play catch up after they mess up.
The Internet provides a forum for various outputs of information and communication services. In America, we take advantage of all the services that free speech can offer us. Despite what people assume, the internet is regulated and American citizens are not completely oblivious to the dangers that then internet creates. By signing the code of conduct, countries will be able to learn how to work collectively and to allow them to integrate and communicate freely with those outside of their countries. The key for this code of conduct to protect privacy and free speech is to get technological companies outside of the U.S. to sign it. If Facebook and Twitter were to sign the pact, the benefits of free speech would be easier to spread because of the audiences that the social networking sites attract.
– Jordan E. Strohl
Calvert, Mary F. 6 March 2011. The New York Times.
The Citizen Lab. 7 March 2011.
Kopytoff, Verne G. 15 March 2011. KOM105.
Image Source: http://www.feross.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/internet-censorship.png