Category Archives: Frontline

Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft–Accused of assisting brutal repression

Last night I watched the PBS Frontline documentary “The Tank Man.” It highlighted the story of the Communist government’s brutal ending of the pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989, focusing on the gripping image of the lone young man holding up an entire column of tanks. A sub-story within this documentary was the role that Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft are playing in helping the Chinese government work to limit the access to information of its people–including about the events in Tiananmen Square. More than that, Cisco and Yahoo in particular were accused of actually assisting the Chinese government in tracking down those who violate China’s rules about dissent and free flow of information.

The footage included testimony from the four companies at Congressional hearings. Cisco stands accused of selling equipment and systems used by the police force to track and prosecute enemies of the state. Yahoo turned over information to the government about the activities of one of its customers that resulted in his arrest and 10 year prison sentence.

When you look at it as presented by the Frontline producers and even more so in my brief explanation, it is chilling and creates an immediate visceral reaction of horror and anger against these companies. And I will tell you that when I saw Cisco’s written statement (they refused to participate in the documentary) I was reminded of I.G Farben. I am working on a book about an American fighter pilot sent to Buchenwald and the I. G. Farben plant was right next to this horrid concentration camp making full use of the slave labor-to-death of the inmates. So many prominent German companies played key roles in supporting a brutal regime including participating in its brutality. Cisco’s explanation and Yahoo’s as well focused on the need to follow the laws of each of the countries they operate in.

They are right of course. But here is one great challenge of globalization. To not participate in the massive opportunity that is China is to relinquish a position of leadership in global business. To participate, means that you have to violate the principles, laws and core values of the customers and regulators who mean the most to you. To say these companies are between a rock and a hard place is understating it.

This, I would consider a smoldering crisis. It could erupt at any time into a full blown flame. As it is, it exists in the blog world and once in a while it emerges into the mainstream media such as PBS. It would not take much for it to burst to a critical reputation crisis for these firms–and based on what was presented Cisco is most at risk. An entrepreneurial activist, the focused engagement of the Freedom Frontier folks, a politician looking for a good cause to run on, a high placed reporter seeing this as a Pulitzer prize opportunity–all very possible and I would guess worrisome to the communication leaders of these organizations.

This challenge also highlights the issues of managing a smoldering crisis. Direct, open conversation and engagement with those (such as me) who are deeply concerned about this and the role they are playing is vitally important. But how do you do that without fanning the flames and inadvertently help the issue burst from the smoke into a full blown crisis?

It will be interesting to watch.

Frontline on the Freedom of the Press

I hope you caught last night’s airing of PBS Frontline’s “News War” program. The issue is freedom of the press–particularly in a society that is facing the unprecedented threat we call the war on terrorism.

Freedom of the press is one of our most unique and valuable contributions to the history of civilization. But in a free and law-directed society, freedom needs to be accompanied by responsibility or else the law must take over. That is the essential issue here. This story contrasted nicely with the news I heard on CBC radio this morning about how Arab countries are “waking up” to the threat from bloggers and moving aggressively to shut down those voices who are critical–even mildly–of the government or its policies.

I have deep concerns about the decision of the New York Times to publish the story of a highly classified and completely legal program of the US government that was a particularly effective tool in the intelligence activity against terrorists. If publishing this kind of information results in the loss of innocent lives needlessly, then I think it is appropriate that people making irresponsible decisions would be held accountable. We would have no problem prosecuting an individual who found out about such a clandestine program and communicated the details of it to those who were seeking to destroy our nation and its freedoms. Somehow we think that if the means of communicating those details is through the media, such actions can be excused under the concept of freedom of the press. There is a boundary in here somewhere where most would agree would be wrong to cross.

But, it is far more clear to us that the Arab governments who are shutting down bloggers are doing so to the great detriment of their countries and its freedoms.  The government may be protected for a time, but at the expense of loss of trust and respect until there is no popular support. Obviously, that perspective comes from our deep commitment to democracy and the freedom of expression and the press that it depends on.

We live more and more in an age of transparency. It is harder and harder for their to be secrets of any kind. We have to think as a society about what it means if our government is not allowed to keep any secrets–will we be as safe and secure as we want? At the same time, we instinctively know that keeping secrets designed to protect the government and not the people they serve is not only wrong, but perhaps the greatest threat of all to democracy.