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Posner's Remarks on Internet Freedom and Responsibility, October 2011

Speaker: Michael Posner
Published October 25, 2011

Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor gave these remarks at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference in San Francisco, CA on October 25, 2011.

Thank you very much for inviting me. I’d like to thank Access for organizing this conference and especially Brett Solomon, who has worked so hard to make it a hub for thoughtful exchange and discussion.

And I’d like to thank the many other friends here today who have helped map out how socially responsible companies can respect people’s fundamental freedoms online.

Today we face a series of challenges at the intersection of human rights, connective technologies, business and government. It’s a busy intersection and a lot of people want to put up traffic lights. In the next few minutes I want to help frame the challenges we face, and offer practical suggestions on the role of companies and how we can best work together to preserve Internet freedom.

First, a word about the challenges.

Almost every day, we see new examples of the power of connection technologies – the transformative power, and the disruptive power. Entire industries have been upended, starting with Old Media. In a single decade, new technologies have decimated traditional newsrooms and killed their business model, but given rise to literally millions of citizen bloggers and citizen filmmakers and a new global journalism outlet called You Tube. All in one decade.

Today we have tens of thousands of people armed with cell-phone cameras and video, documenting what is happening on the streets of the Middle East. Some can upload it within minutes. Others have to smuggle it out in places like Syria. But the truth is getting out.

And yet, these amazing technologies haven’t made it any safer to do reporting in these hard places – or for human rights activists to talk to one another.

The Arab spring brought home the power of the Internet to governments far beyond the Middle East, and the result has been more censorship, more surveillance and more restrictions.

Repressive governments used to set up firewalls at Internet Exchange Points to block external content they disliked. Now they’re using bots to delete posts and block emails in something approaching real time. They’re using surreptitious deep-packet inspection and sophisticated key-logger software to track what their citizens do online. They are exerting overbroad state control over content, over users, and over companies. And they’re trying to change national and international legal standards to legitimize it all.

Let me give you one example. Last month in New York the governments of China, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan came to the UN to suggest the need for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security.” This would shift cyberspace away from being a multi-stakeholder, people-driven model – to a system dominated by centralized government control. Not a good idea.

An online world where more and more countries begin policing content for ideological correctness – whether they call it a Halal Internet or a hate-free Internet – would extinguish the promise of technology to drive global understanding and the free exchange of information, ideas, and innovation.

So my first message to you is that the Internet space – which has seemed so open and free – could become less so. We are up against an ever more sophisticated range of technical, legal, and political challenges to freedom in cyberspace. Secretary Clinton has called the Internet the town square of the 21st Century. The Obama administration has staked out a principled stand on Internet freedom, arguing that the fundamental freedoms apply online just as they do offline. That includes the right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

I also want to say a word about the protection of intellectual property, which is sometimes seen as in conflict with Internet freedom. Even though it may be more difficult to enforce these rights in the Digital Age, as authors, artists and inventors are discovering, they are protected by international law. You don’t have the right to break into a movie theater and steal the film reels and you don’t have the right to steal movies online, either.

Before I joined the Obama administration, I spent most of my career in the NGO world, where for years I argued – you might say self-servingly – that progress on human rights is rarely generated by governments alone. Now from my perch inside government, it is even clearer to me that government can’t do it alone – and shouldn’t.

To advance these fundamental freedoms, we need the help of citizens, corporations and global civil society for what is likely to be a long, tough struggle with regimes that do not share our values or our views on the merits of openness. And I particularly want to call attention to the role of companies, because today corporations have more global influence than ever.

If Wal-Mart were a country, its annual revenues would rank it as the 23rd largest economy in the world -- ahead of Norway and Venezuela. That’s comparing annual revenues vs. GDP. Hewlett-Packard is only 11th on the Fortune 500, but its 2010 revenues would rank it ahead of Vietnam and Morocco.

So the private sector is more powerful than ever. But it’s also less private than ever. Today, we’re all living in a fishbowl. Any one of us may face public scrutiny for any decision we make. And now it’s instant scrutiny in real time. Most of us are still learning the new rules for life on webcam.

It used to be that companies only faced this kind of scrutiny in a crisis—when the Labor Department exposed sweatshops or when violence erupted along a pipeline. The strategy was crisis-mitigation and damage control, without a lot of attention to the underlying issues. Today, more and more companies realize they can’t wait for the crisis to consider human rights. If you’re living in a fishbowl, on webcam, you have to do the right thing 24/7. And companies find it is often more effective to work together—even with their toughest competitors—as well as with governments like ours, and with NGOs. Through these cooperative efforts, they are addressing the underlying issues before they find themselves in the crosshairs of controversy.

Let me give you a few examples.

In the extractive industries, Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell and 15 other major oil and mining giants, who do business in some of the toughest places on earth, met in Ottawa last month. They joined seven governments and 10 NGOs in a collaborative effort that aims to minimize the risk of human rights abuses by security forces in conflict areas, which is where the natural resources often are.

In the private security industry, Xe Services LLC, formerly Blackwater, and 200 other private security companies have signed on to a new international code of conduct. The code addresses their use of force, and it bans torture, sexual exploitation, human trafficking and forced labor. The companies are now working with governments and NGOs to build a system to verify that everyone who signs up lives up to their pledge.

In the apparel industry, a number of large global companies have opened up factories in their global supply chains to scrutiny by independent auditors and posted reports about their labor practices online. For more than a decade, leading companies including Nike, adidas, Liz Claiborne and H&M have worked hard to improve working conditions in their supply chains, and they have found willing partners from NGOs and universities through an organization called the Fair Labor Association.

These companies are making money in hard places. Each has realized that one of the costs of doing business in those places is to assess the risks and to invest in developing principles, people and processes to address the human rights challenges they confront.

Your problems are not so different from those oil companies with wells in the Niger Delta, security contractors operating in Iraq or apparel companies sourcing in China or Bangladesh. Your challenges are unique, but the process of addressing those challenges is no different.

Over the coming decades, the growth markets for ICT companies will be disproportionally found in less developed countries. That’s where your next three billion customers live. And these are the places where repressive regimes are getting hold of the latest, greatest Western technologies and using them use them to spy on their own citizens for purposes of silencing dissent. Journalists, bloggers and activists are of course the primary targets.

So these are the places where companies will face the greatest scrutiny and real challenges. We’ve all seen the news about demands to turn over user information or questions about what has been sold to repressive regimes by Western companies. Three years ago, the headlines were about companies in China. Last month, rebels found Colonel Qaddafi’s Internet surveillance boiler room in Tripoli as reported in the Wall Street Journal. This week, it’s information technology in Syria.

Of course we have some sanctions in place, and we enforce them. But whether or not there are formal legal sanctions, companies should be thinking about how to do the right thing.

My point is that scrutiny—from the public, the media and Congress—is unlikely to diminish even if the Arab Awakening fades from the headlines, because other governments in some very important emerging markets appear fiercely determined to control what people do online. And just as the extractive industries, private security contractors and apparel companies have found a way forward under scrutiny; your industry must now do the same.

I’m not the right person to assess your business models, your technical capacities, or your dealings with individual governments. Each of you will take your own path. But after almost twenty years of working with companies on tough human rights issues, I can tell you what the smart companies are doing. In general, their response has five elements:

First, they have developed broad principles to guide their actions. In this field, these probably include principles on free expression and privacy and perhaps also criteria on when to avoid working with governments who use technology to become more efficient at committing gross human rights violations.

Second, smart companies are developing internal systems to ensure that these principles are applied in practice. This is not a public relations exercise. It requires senior level buy-in by company leaders, hiring people whose job it is to make sure it happens, and the same focus that executives apply to any other high priority for their business.

Third, leading companies devise internal benchmarks of progress. These benchmarks help assess risks and respond to problems, and they allow companies to evaluate whether they are solving the problems the principles seek to address.

Fourth, they are banding together to develop industry best practices and plans for collective action. In fiercely competitive industries, no company acting alone has the power to solve human rights problems. Working together, in concert with civil society organizations and willing governments like our own, you will have more clout. In my observation, in the area of human rights this often is an essential ingredient of success.

Finally, collective corporate action is bolstered by systematic engagement with stakeholders – with NGOs, universities, think tanks, experts and social investors. They have information, expertise and early warning of problems. Activists, journalists and bloggers are the canaries in your coal mine; if you listen, they can help you anticipate trouble and take steps to address problems before a crisis erupts. And for the record, I offer that same advice to the very governments who often shoot the instant messenger by going out and jailing bloggers instead of listening to the valuable information they convey. Whether you view your stakeholders as dissidents or advisors, they will shape the public debate on your issues. They can make you more credible and validate your efforts.

These elements aren’t a prescription or a quick fix. But they do offer a constructive approach that has worked for other companies. And I would be remiss if I did not call out the efforts of three particular companies, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, for their leadership and all of the NGOs, academics, social investors and other stakeholders with whom they are working through the Global Network Initiative. For the past five years this group has wrestled collectively with the thorniest issues of the day. These are the kind of efforts that help us find ways forward together.

Cyberspace belongs to all of us now. It’s where we live. It’s where you earn your living. And just as no business wants to open its doors in a high-crime neighborhood, no business wants to be located on the street where police are beating up democracy protestors. And we all share an interest in an open Internet that supports a culture of entrepreneurship in which people around the world can thrive. It’s not just the technologies born here in Silicon Valley that are revolutionizing the world and creating huge demand for your products. It’s also the culture, the ethos of innovation, the dedication to freedom, fun and profit that are finding resonance around the world.

The Internet on which the future depends can’t be maintained as an open and global network if we don’t work together to figure out how to push back against those who care more about political domination than empowering innovation. My problem is your problem. It’s all of our problem.

Silicon Valley has already given birth to game-changing technologies and a profoundly new approach to philanthropy. Many people here have made it their life’s work not only to develop transformative technologies but also to put them in the hands of people in places where digital empowerment is leaps ahead of political or financial or educational empowerment. Never have great ideas gone from dream to global distribution so quickly.

But with great code comes great responsibility. It isn’t enough simply to develop a revolutionary product and leave it to others to figure out what happens next. You, the people in this room, are the brain trust for the coming generation – for the next five billion users who will be coming online. So I challenge each of you to work with us to help figure out what can happen next, what must happen next, to preserve the Internet as we know it. Or the autocrats will figure it out for us.

And I challenge each of you to innovate again. Not just in your products, but in the way you will serve your customers. People with real needs, and rights, and aspirations for a better life. Innovate for profit, but also for the people in the hard places. We will be your partner. Thank you.

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