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Rediff.com  » Business » Telcos, social media sites get a conscience call

Telcos, social media sites get a conscience call

February 25, 2011 11:23 IST
TelecomIn June 2009, when elections were being held in Iran, the US State Department had contacted Twitter asking it to delay a planned upgrade to cut daytime service to Iranians who were on the streets protesting against the election results.

"When we worked with our network provider yesterday (June 15, 2009) to reschedule this planned maintenance, we did so because events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network...we...agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world," co-Founder Biz Stone had then stated in a post on the Twitter blog.

Nineteen months later, protests that began on January 25 this year in Egypt, were catalysed online and led to the fall of the West Asian leader Hosni Mubarak.

"As another longtime Arab dictator falls from power in the wake of popular street protests, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to deny the power of social media in shaping political events," acknowledges Brett Solomon, executive director of Accessnow.org.

Facebook has over 600 million users worldwide while Twitter has slightly over 175 million users with 95 million tweets daily.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International and Access, however, are highlighting a simultaneous trend in cyberspace, "a deeply disturbing and troubling path of governments, frequently with the cooperation of corporations, to shut down online communication tools in an attempt to quash legitimate, peaceful democratic protest", as Solomon of Access terms it.

In an open letter on his website, Solomon states that ". . . Facebook should be congratulated and condemned in one go: they've built a revolutionary platform that's catalysed the political change sweeping West Asia and beyond, but Facebook has also become a treasure trove of information for dictators, allowing them to identify and track down those who oppose them. . .

While Facebook is re-evaluating its policies, please sign the petition to protect our privacy and others' very security." Over 30,000 people from over 100 countries have signed the petition till date.

In another letter, Solomon has alleged that Vodafone, too, is ". . .accountable for a series of active steps that...have had serious human rights implications for the people of Egypt.

Decades of emergency law appear to have suited Vodafone (it has around 25 million subscribers in this country) when you were making billions of dollars in profit in Egypt. Now that the story is hurting your brand, you are claiming innocence.

(Vodafone Egypt had stated that all mobile phone operators in the country had been 'obliged' to suspend services). We reject your excuses as wholly inadequate..."

Many corporations have buckled under pressure from governments -- dictators or otherwise.

In 2005, a Chinese activist was imprisoned for 10 years after Yahoo! China provided his personal details. During Iran's post-election unrest in 2009, Nokia had allegedly supplied Iran with mobile surveillance technology, which it used to clamp down on protesters.

Corporations have been at the receiving end too. For instance, YouTube and Gmail (both from Google), Blackberry maker Research in Motion, Wikileaks, Twitter and Facebook have all been censored at various times in China, Iran, Egypt and other countries.

Internet censorship is a rising trend, with approximately 40 countries filtering the web in varying degrees, including democratic and non-democratic governments.

Governments are using more sophisticated censorship and surveillance techniques, including blocking social networks, to restrict a variety of types of content, reports the Global Network Initiative Report 2010.

For instance, Narus -- now a Boeing company -- sells deep packet inspection technology to many customers in Europe, West Asia (including the Egyptian government) and Africa.

The heartening trend, note activists, is that representatives of some major technology companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! currently serve on the GNI board.

"In a world where the internet is rapidly becoming the critical medium to ensure respect for human rights, complying with the Principles of GNI is an opportunity for companies to ensure that they are a part of this trend and reduce the risk that they undermine it," underscores Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights, Human Rights Watch, in the 2010 report.

They hope that companies like Twitter and Facebook join the bandwagon. Professor John Ruggie, UN Secretary-General Special Representative on business and human rights, concludes: "The declaratory era of CSR is over: It's not enough for companies to say that they respect human rights...GNI is an important platform for information and communications technology companies to do just that..."

(The author, on a sabbatical from Business Standard, is an MIT Knight Science Journalism Research Fellow 2010-11)

Leslie D''Monte in Mumbai
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