Cisco Needs To Step Up To Reduce Net Censorship, Says Net Freedom Advocate

Posted by: Peter Burrows on November 19, 2008

I recently finished writing a story on Net censorship in Saudi Arabia, as part of a larger package on Cisco’s ambitions in the world’s emerging markets. Throughout the process, my editor Peter Elstrom and I struggled with how to explain the link, if any, between what Cisco sells and what the Saudi Arabian government does. Cisco has always maintained that it just sells the routers—that what each customer chooses to do with them is their own business. I have a hard time with this explanation, if only because Cisco’s strategy in emerging markets is all about selling the e-services that make those routers useful. For example, it has designed a massive 250,000-camera surveillance system that will likely be deployed in the vast King Abdullah Economic City that is now under construction in Saudi Arabia. If Cisco readily admits that it’s helping build a system that could enable surveillance of anti-government activists, would a Cisco salesman really refuse to give any pointers to a government customer that wants to censor?

Yet most of the Net Freedom advocates I spoke with had the same view: while they were concerned about Cisco’s potential to aid censors, the company had never been caught in the act. The closest thing to proof was a PowerPoint presentation crated by a mid-level staffer that suggested Cisco knew the Chinese government intended to use its technology against the Falun Gong, which led to a Congressional hearing on the topic. But most experts didn’t think it amounted to that smoking gun, and Cisco publicly apologized for what it called a violation of company ethics policy. “I’m not ready to grab a pitchfork” to go after Cisco, Jonathan Zittrain told me earlier this summer. He’s the author of “The Future of the Internet — And How To Stop It” and co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

A few days before we published, news broke that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo had agreed to support the Global Network Initiative, a new code of conduct for tech companies, to help “protect and advance individuals’ rights to free expression and privacy on the Internet.” Absent from the list of participants was Cisco, so I called the company for comment. I was told that the code of conduct only applied to Net service providers, not equipment makers, but that the company had “indicated an interest in participating in a comparable effort for hardware providers.”

I also called the Berkman Center, which had been a key driver of the initiative. While I didn’t reach anyone live, I got emailed responses from the Center’s acting executive director, Colin Maclay. Unfortunately, they arrived after the magazine story had gone to press. But if you’re interested, here’s the email interview, after the break:

Me: How would (should) the new code of conduct affect Cisco? The company has argued in the past that it only sells off-the-shelf technology to governments around the world, but does nothing to customize that technology so it can be used for censorship purposes. Does this perspective comply with the code of conduct? If not, what should they do?

Maclay: Cisco offers dual-use technology that is fundamentally different from the companies participating in the Global Network Initiative (GNI), which offer consumer products and services and are committing to practices that will reduce risk to users through their own internal practices and decision-making, interactions with governments seeking to abridge the human rights to free expression and privacy, and broader stakeholder engagement over time. The GNI isn't designed to address what sort of businesses should - or should not be - conducted with governments. I am not familiar enough with Cisco's particular situation to say what they should do, but what I can say, is that they must do something. Ignoring endangerment of the rights to free expression and privacy puts at risk much of the good that information and communications technologies (ICTs) can (and should) do for social and economic development around the world.

Me: Was Cisco approached to join the initiative? If so, why didn't they join? What were their concerns? Do you expect them to join in the future?

Maclay: Cisco was invited to participate on a number of occasions both before the process started and during it, but declined saying that they would wait and look at the GNI when the first phase was complete. I believe this is also what they said at the most recent Senate hearing. We are still developing procedures for including new participants (our publication of the documents earlier this month generated significant interest among companies and non-companies alike). But from my personal perspective it seems unlikely that Cisco would participate at this point. Because they did not participate in the drafting process, their specific challenges are not explicitly addressed within our work to date. We have discussed the formation of sector-specific groups that could fit under the GNI umbrella, but for the present remain focused on the substantial work to which we have already committed.

Me: The company is in a difficult competitive position, since companies like Huawei and ZTE are under less pressure (certainly in China) to be vigilant in this area. In other words, Cisco could put itself at a severe competitive disadvantage, in many fast-growing emerging markets. Do you see this as a problem? Can you share your thoughts on how Cisco could comply or be a leader, given this reality?

Maclay: There will always be competition, both in terms of the current competitors and technologies, and the next generations - whether Huawei and deep packet inspection, or others yet to come. This is simply part of the landscape and isn't an excuse for inaction or behavior otherwise not befitting a global leader. Cisco needs to figure out how best to solve this problem, whether alone or in concert with others, lest the problem be solved for them - possibly in a less effective manner. Indeed, they run the very real risk of provoking legislation aimed at them and other companies providing services to governments that use them to limit expression and privacy, such as Fortinet products in Burma and Websense products in Tunisia.

It's an opportunity for the global leadership we expect from technology industry visionaries in particular, and American companies in general. In the case of GNI, the participants recognized that by proactively working together, they could collectively protect and advance human rights in a far more effective manner than they could individually and reactively, even if it risked putting them at a disadvantage as compared to the rest of the market. While they recognize they will incur new costs, may be punished by governments, and so on, they feel strongly that the resources necessary to make this initiative a success, are a worthwhile investment in every sense, from keeping employees and shareholders happy, to tapping into the growing market for free expression and privacy, to reinforcing their brand value, to simply doing the right thing.

ICT companies face significant challenges now and they will only increase in the years ahead as users and uses of technology increase, and governments become more deeply aware of their capacity. At the present time, I believe that these companies along with other stakeholders, are best positioned to develop and implement creative, collaborative, proactive and dynamic solutions that ensure that the amazing tools available to us are not a platform for censorship and repression, but a hugely powerful and nearly boundless enabler for information access, expression, and interaction.

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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