There’s a thought-provoking and very interesting piece over at Techcrunch today about the complicity of various Western software and hardware companies in helping brutal regimes spy on or murder their citizens by providing them with enabling IT products. It highlights various household names routinely helping repressive governments censor the internet and surveillance specialists providing services for spying on citizens – everyone from McAffee, Nokia, and Cisco to FinFisher, Bluecoat Systems, and Bain Capital get a mention in reference to making money from some very ethically dubious activities.
The problem for Silicon Valley (and indeed web and tech companies worldwide) is that oppression increasingly requires computing technology as much as more traditional weapons which regimes would employ against their populations. A dictator has as much use for powerful software as a cache of automatic rifles and both will these days be equally essential in maintaining a repressive grip on power. So at what point should companies exercise ethical consideration over doing business with such customers?
Most of those mentioned above claim that the business for which they are being criticised is perfectly legal – and claim no responsibility for what clients do with products they have been sold. Occasionally someone does buck the trend and actually takes responsibility for the ultimate, rather than immediate, consequences of such business (Google’s much discussed decision to pull out of China for example) but the general picture is that for every example of conscientious decision making, there are five or ten others in which human rights come lower on the list of priorities than making money.
The issue is sadly not a new one – the role and complicity of IBM in providing services to the Third Reich during WWII (which were directly applied in the running of concentration camps) is a much older example of the same debate. Once again the problem is simple – at what point does one have to put principle above profit – but sadly the tech sector, which sometimes enjoys a privileged image of nobility in some popular imaginings (often contrasted with the greed of the banking sector in recent years for example), is far less pure-minded than many imagine.
This issue will surely become increasingly central to international relations debates and questions around human rights in years to come – the role of the internet in the Arab spring has been well documented – and companies will more and more face stark choices over whether to put human rights concerns above the demands of paying clients or repressive governments.
Sadly, there will always be money to be made in war and oppression (it is hard to do efficiently empty-handed) and some sectors such as armaments have made billions from this fact. This is a sad state of affairs in my view but it is fundamentally different from the corresponding situation with regard to some tech and web companies in one important regard.
While most ordinary Brits are not also direct customers of QinetiQ or BAE systems (two of the larger UK ‘defence’ companies) and so can only really exert pressure on them indirectly (campaigning against the arms trade, political activism etc), the same is not true of McAffee, IBM, or Microsoft. QinetiQ might make lots of money by selling products which will ultimately be used to harm people (helping you choose products with ‘the required lethality’) but, even if we disagree with their activities, we cannot simply boycott their products since most of us don’t buy anything from them on an individual basis (our government buys plenty however, but that is a matter for another day).
Tech and web companies are sometimes different in that they also rely on our custom for the sustainability of their business. A boycott of these products is completely feasible and viable and would hurt the revenues of said companies greatly. The ultimate conclusion therefore is that, even if web and tech companies decide not to exercise any moral scruples, it is still possible for the customers of their everyday ‘bread-and-butter’ products to do so – and make decisions which send a clear message about the acceptability of doing business with tyrants and murderers.