Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A lesson on saying no to governments from Google, Twitter and Vodafone

I've been thinking a lot recently about the role that technology companies play in facilitating or frustrating the efforts of governments to spy on or censor their citizens.

As such, I think it is interesting to compare the actions by a few large firms in response to the recent events in Egypt.

First, from Google and Twitter yesterday:
Like many people we’ve been glued to the news unfolding in Egypt and thinking of what we could do to help people on the ground. Over the weekend we came up with the idea of a speak-to-tweet service—the ability for anyone to tweet using just a voice connection.

We worked with a small team of engineers from Twitter, Google and SayNow, a company we acquired last week, to make this idea a reality. It’s already live and anyone can tweet by simply leaving a voicemail on one of these international phone numbers ...

We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there.
And Vodafone, on Friday:
All mobile operators in Egypt were instructed on Friday to suspend services in some areas amid widespread protests against President Hosni Mubarak's rule, Vodafone Group PLC (VOD) said in a statement.

"All mobile operators in Egypt have been instructed to suspend services in selected areas," the U.K. company said, adding that under Egyptian law it was "obliged" to comply with the order.
The following day, Vodafone issued an updated statement:
Vodafone restored voice services to our customers in Egypt this morning, as soon as we were able.

We would like to make it clear that the authorities in Egypt have the technical capability to close our network, and if they had done so it would have taken much longer to restore services to our customers.

It has been clear to us that there were no legal or practical options open to Vodafone, or any of the mobile operators in Egypt, but to comply with the demands of the authorities.

Moreover, our other priority is the safety of our employees and any actions we take in Egypt will be judged in light of their continuing wellbeing.
These statements reveal significantly different positions by large, multi-national corporations. Google and Twitter opted to thumb their noses at the Egyptian government's attempt to silence its citizens, while Vodafone meekly complied, shutting down one of the largest wireless phone networks in the country.

Does this mean that Twitter and Google value human rights more than Vodafone? Does it mean that Vodafone hates freedom? Not really.

The government has guns, and we don't

For a bit of insight on this, lets turn to Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, in what is perhaps his most truthful interview ever on the topic of privacy, and reason why consumers should not trust their data to Google:
There is a problem with the government which is that they have guns and we don't. And so the term "resistance", you want to be careful ... We are required to follow US law, and we do so, even if we don't like it. As the CEO of a public company (or a private company) there can be no other answer.

The key difference between these firms, is that neither Google nor Twitter have any infrastructure located in Egypt, while Vodafone likely has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment located in the country. While the Egyptian government could raid Google's Cairo office and arrest its local marketing staff, the government cannot take Google's servers (which are located in other countries) offline. Twitter is in an even safer position, as it doesn't even have a local office in Egypt -- there is nothing that the government can do to hurt the company.

As such, while Google and Twitter certainly deserve praise for going out of their way to frustrate the censorship efforts of the Egyptian government, we should remember that these firms are sacrificing very little in order to do so.

If Vodafone dared to ignore the government's order and kept its network running, it is likely that the authorities would seize or destroy the firm's hugely valuable equipment.

In order to accurately gauge a company's willingness to tell a particular government to go and fuck itself, you have to examine the actions of that company in countries where it actually has significant assets, and where the government can actually shut down its services.

Rather than comparing Vodafone's actions to Google's Tweet-via-voicemail effort, it might be more useful to compare it to Google's recent, voluntary move to scrub the auto-suggest results in its search engine, censoring a few high-profile keywords associated with filesharing and piracy. Google didn't even wait for the government to pass laws requiring it to censor the rules, merely the threat of such legislation on the horizon was enough to get the company to act.

This is not to say that Google is evil, merely that it is a rational actor, and is going out of its way to avoid upsetting governments that can actually harm the company. Keep this in mind the next time that Google (or any other firm) thumbs their nose at the censorship activities of some government in a far away country -- such actions are easy, but much tougher at home.

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