March 2, 2010 1:55PM

Global Internet Freedom via Government Regulation?

This morning's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on global Internet freedom opened with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) announcing that he would "introduce legislation that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability."  Durbin's staff tell me they're in the early phases of hammering out a draft, so exactly what that amounts to isn't clear yet, but my first-pass gut reaction is that this has the potential to do as much harm as good.

The argument for establishing some such set of rules is pretty straightforward: You don't want the perverse scenario where corporations worry they're shirking their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders if they fail to compete in the market to provide sophisticated technologies of control and repression to the world's most authoritarian regimes. You don't want despots exploiting the innovation that springs from the very freedom they deny their own people as a means to cement their own control. It's possible to frame this as a collective action problem, with tech companies happy to "do the right thing" provided all their competitors do—but with each ultimately deciding to play ball for fear that if they don't, someone else will.  If that accurately captures the dynamic—and, crucially, if the field of competitors is heavily concentrated in the United States—the binding power of legislation could increase the pressure on foreign governments to abandon repressive Internet policies. In theory, anyway.

But which steps are "reasonable," and who decides? Google's recent announcement that it would—eventually—cease its complicity in China's regime of Internet censorship was greeted with general approbation, to the point where it's easy to forget that, even if you're exclusively concerned with what's in the interest of the Chinese people, it's a hard call whether and when a principled refusal to deal is really better than distasteful engagement. As Google's Nicole Wong put it at the hearing, the company's decision to launch in 2006 was premised on "the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results." They've now apparently decided that the balance of considerations cuts the other way, but it needs to be stressed that it's still a question of balance, and there will be real costs to withdrawal.

The tools Google provides can be useful to scholars and activists despite the constraints imposed by the Chinese government—and even when Google does censor search results, it endeavors to make that censorship at least somewhat transparent, announcing to users that some content has been removed. Few expect China to blink in the face of Google's ultimatum, but it's also worth noting that whatever leverage companies like Google do have over foreign regimes depends in significant part on their having been there in the first place to develop a user base.  One can imagine the government facing a political backlash if China's second most popular search engine disappears; it's hard to imagine much outcry over the decision not to enter the market in the first place. Then again, maybe the upshot of all this will just be that the 30 percent of Chinese Internet users who'd gotten censored results on Google will shrug and get their censored results from Baidu instead.

None of this is to say that Google's new course is wrong, just that the questions are complex enough that I'd be chary of imposing criminal penalties on a company that made a different call about the balance of interests. Our own government, after all, routinely decides that some Greater Good is served by cooperation with frankly loathsome regimes, and the track record to date does not inspire vastly more confidence in their judgment than in Google's.

Speakers at the hearing also broached the possibility of government support for various encryption and circumvention technologies that would be useful to foreign dissidents. I'm all for loosening export controls, but as Durbin himself noted, there's a tricky line to walk here: Without a clear separation of Tech and State, repressive regimes will eagerly seek to reframe their arguments with tech firms over the degree of freedom their people should enjoy as an argument with the United States, which will be portrayed as seeking to "force" our particular conception of democracy on sovereign nations. It will be a spurious argument, but that doesn't mean it won't work.

I'll wait to see the actual bill before rendering any firm judgment, but it seems like it would be awfully easy to pass legislation that lets us pat ourselves on the back for our noble ideals without actually doing a whole lot to advance online freedom in practice.