Social Media Companies Have Decisions to Make

    My colleague Don Tennant offered a very well written and interesting post on Jan. 7 on Google’s removal of a feature that let users in China know when a search term is being censored.

    Don wrote that Google did the right thing in pulling the feature and maintained that a company operating in a country is obligated to follow its laws. Here is some of what Don wrote:

    So the answer for Google and other U.S. companies operating in China does not lie in arrogantly trying to circumvent Chinese law. If we want to operate in China, we need to be willing to abide by Chinese laws, whether we agree with them or not, just as we expect foreign companies operating in our country to abide by our laws, whether they agree with them or not.

    That’s completely true in 99 percent of cases, of course. If the English insist on driving on the wrong side of the road, an American company operating there must tell its drivers to obey. A Norwegian medical supply company operating in the U.S. must follow HIPAA requirements to the letter, or be subject to the same fines and punishment that violations would bring to an American company.

    The underlying issue, however, is more complex than it seems at first glance and strikes at the heart of how powerful and ubiquitous social media services have become. The basic reality is that companies – especially social media and networking organizations – simply can’t pretend to be neutral parties with no responsibility for, or interest in, how its products are being used.

    Don’s piece dealt only with censorship. However, there is no difference conceptually between pulling a few terms off a search engine and more fundamentally ceding control over the manner in which a telecommunications tool – be it a search engine or a social media platform – is used. (It’s useful to make a distinction between making adjustments for political reasons – such as Google did in China – and reasonable tweaking for cultural sensibilities.)

    It is important to understand that the Googles, Twitters and Facebooks of the world are not peripheral players. The level of accessibility that the population has to them is a matter of life and death to unpopular regimes and the people trying to unseat them.

    The social media companies face some very important decisions. It is no accident that the Arab Spring happened after the explosion of these platforms. It is arguable that if it wasn’t for social media – most of which are owned by American companies – Mubarak and Khadafi would still be in charge in Egypt and Libya. Social media essentially kickstarted the Iranian uprising, which, unfortunately, failed. The fate of Syria still is up in the air, but it is clear that social media is playing a role there as well.

    So this goes way beyond some search engine entries. Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and various carriers must think carefully about how they conduct themselves. Would they be justified in helping a regime shut down activities deemed to be illegal? Would it be okay for Twitter to divulge the identity and location of a dissident? What is the difference, philosophically, between those unpleasant steps and tweaking a search engine?

    Of course, it is hard to imagine Twitter, Facebook or Google doing any of these things to please thugs running countries with relatively small markets. However, it is worth thinking about precisely what rules a social media company or international carrier will use before a situation arises in which a huge market is at stake. That day will come, if it hasn’t already.

    It is naïve for Google, YouTube and the other social media companies to not acknowledge that they are vital players that to some degree shape how countries are run in the 21st century. Access to communications tools is second only to access to arms in determining if an uprising succeeds or fails – or even if it gets started.

    It is disingenuous for multinationals to duck the issue by simply saying that they are following local law. By that logic, an imaginary antebellum Google wouldn’t have a problem in the use of Google Earth to track runaway slaves.

    It gets even more complicated: Assad is murdering Syrians. I am not an expert on Syrian law, but it is safe to assume that dropping bombs on residential neighborhoods isn’t legal. It is likely that Syrian security forces are somehow using social media to find targets and coordinate these awful attacks. If so, that company’s products are being used to do illegal things, no matter who is in charge. The complexity is great: Obeying the government often is not the same as following the law.

    The point is that in the modern world Twitter, Google, BlackBerry – which has had a contentious relationship with India and some other countries over these sorts of control issues – must work out a detailed position on what its products may or may not be used for. These rules must extend to all countries evenly and be well publicized. If a government doesn’t like it, too bad – no matter what the size is of the perspective market.

    Carl Weinschenk
    Carl Weinschenk
    Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk Carl Weinschenk is a long-time IT and telecom journalist. His coverage areas include the IoT, artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence, drones, 3D printing LTE and 5G, SDN, NFV, net neutrality, municipal broadband, unified communications and business continuity/disaster recovery. Weinschenk has written about wireless and phone companies, cable operators and their vendor ecosystems. He also has written about alternative energy and runs a website, The Daily Music Break, as a hobby.

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