A new survey released Thursday provides a mixed view on how far industry experts believe that tech companies will go in assisting authoritarian governments in controlling access to technology. The survey found that while industry experts expressed hope that companies would do the right thing, they expect that many won't.
The survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and Elon University polled 1,021 technology experts on a range of questions around how technology firms would respond by 2020 when asked to follow restrictive rules imposed by authoritarian governments. The survey was conducted last fall in the wake of the Arab Spring when activists used such tools as Twitter or Facebook to help spur protests against authoritarian regimes in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.
The survey was released on the same day that the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution recognizing the right of free expression on the Internet.
It's an issue many companies already are confronting as they move into markets such as China, which forces firms to censor Internet content. Such restrictions have prompted different reactions from U.S. companies. Google famously announced in January 2010 that it would stop censoring search results for users in China. Cisco, meanwhile, was sued last year by a human rights group that accused the Internet networking firm of working with the Chinese government to help build its Internet-censorship firewall.
The new survey found that while 51 percent of those polled said firms from democratic countries such as the United States and Western Europe would be under pressure to resist such efforts, 39 percent of the tech experts said they believe many firms will likely give in to pressure from authoritarian countries to restrict the use of some technology.
The study surveyed a wide range of people who work for tech firms or follow technology issues closely such as Danah Boyd, senior researcher for Microsoft Research, who had a pessimistic view of how companies may react to pressures from authoritarian regimes.
"Most companies will publicly state that they are doing everything possible to protect citizens while making countless concessions and political decisions that will end up harming citizens," Boyd said in a response to the survey.
Still, some were optimistic that technology would continue to advance in ways that would allow dissidents in authoritarian countries to get around government efforts to censor the Internet or restrict access to some technology.
"Large technology firms will inevitably cave in to governments' pressure to surveil and control citizens' activities," Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, told the researchers. "The good news is that grassroots, open-source capabilities will grow increasingly useful for people to work around government penetration of our digital infrastructures."
Some U.S. firms have joined with human rights and press freedom groups through the Global Network Initiative to try to develop principles for companies to help promote freedom of expression and privacy when it comes to the use of technology. The survey found that while some tech experts surveyed had high hopes for such initiatives, they have been disappointed with the results.
"Many of us had a lot of hope for the Global Network Initiative, but it's gotten bogged down in its own process and hasn't attracted any non-U.S. (or non-Google, MSN, Yahoo) adherents," said former Obama administration technology adviser Susan Crawford, who teaches at Cardozo Law School.
Janna Anderson, one of the report's authors who serves as director of Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, said she believes the report's findings will likely cause companies to examine how they might respond to requests from governments to take actions that could stifle Internet freedom or access to technology.
"Just asking questions forces them to deal with issues they may have not thought of before," she said in an interview.