Should tech companies hold back features to protect themselves?

What should companies do to protect themselves from legal trouble in foreign nations whose laws are more stringent than their own? Is there anything they can do?

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
3 min read

After the terrorist attacks in Mumbai rocked the world, the Indian government found that the terrorists involved in the incident used Google Earth to reconnoiter strategic locations on the ground. For that reason, an Indian lawyer wants it banned from use.

According to a petition brought before the Bombay High Court, Google Earth "aids terrorists in plotting attacks." The lawyer, Amit Karkhanis, has asked the court to force Google to blur or remove images of strategic locations across the country while the case is being heard.

On top of that, the Times Online is reporting that the gunmen used "complex GPS systems to navigate their way to Mumbai by sea. They communicated by satellite phone, used mobile phones with several different SIM cards, and may have monitored events as the siege unfolded via handheld BlackBerry Web browsers."

So far, Indian officials have not asked the High Court to ban the use of those devices. Regardless, India's possible ban on Google Earth and other such bans across the world on devices, Web sites, and search results that are deemed dangerous for citizens, certainly raise a red flag.

Should tech companies hold back neat features in their gadgets or services that we would all want just to avoid providing a handful of criminals with something that may aid them in their illegal endeavors?

To say Google Earth should be banned from Indian citizens because it allegedly aided terrorists in their plot to kill innocent civilians is ludicrous on a number of levels. Regardless, it could happen and Google (and the rest of us) will have no recourse to stop it.

What could Google have done? Removed all the hotels in Mumbai from its images? Taken out each possible terrorist target just in case they decided to attack somewhere else around the world? It's getting out of hand.

This court battle highlights an important issue facing any tech company today: there are legal ramifications for developing a product that a country somewhere in the world deems inappropriate or dangerous. Sure, Google probably won't face any legal action for its imaging solution, but what does it do to the company's future plans in India? Doesn't it stand to reason that if a company's product or service is banned from a country, the chances of its entire product line getting banned are suddenly higher?

And that's where the trouble arises. If a company is concerned that one feature in its product will aid criminals and possibly lead to legal issues, it's entirely possible that that company will remove it to save itself from all the headaches of dealing with governments.

I understand that from the perspective of a business executive who doesn't want to lose revenue over a couple features, but I can't help but wonder why we, as consumers, need to suffer because of the possibility of something going wrong. Inevitably, the argument comes down to guilt and government officials not wanting to take the blame. After all, it's easier to blame a criminal act on a gadget rather than yourself, right?

So what can companies do? If they know their product is the most innovative on the market, but it could potentially help criminals, should they remove that feature or should they keep it in and prepare for the possible fallout? It's an interesting question that probably can't be answered so easily. Given my druthers, I'd like to see every product on the market feature the very best a company can provide, regardless of legal ramifications. Consumers would respect that and a company could show that its ultimate allegiance is to the customer and not the government of the country its products are sold in.

Let's just hope Google and the rest agree with that sentiment.

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