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How far will tech firms go to help oppressive governments?

Pew Study surveys industry experts to see what they think the future holds for corporations and their relationships with governments and consumers when it comes to Internet repression.

Elon University/Pew Internet Research Center

A little more than half of Internet stakeholders surveyed by Pew Internet expected -- or more likely were optimistic about -- a future with greater corporate responsibility when it comes to supporting human rights through technology, according to a study released today (PDF).

The study highlights the ongoing discussion of the tech industry's role in politics, activism, and freedom speech. Recent news highlighting growing discontent of censorship and unethical business practices further push the issue.

The study examined how far tech companies will go to help oppressive governments when it comes to controlling access to technology or following unethical business practices by asking several questions, including:

"When it comes to the behavior and practices of global tech firms and political, social, and economic movements, how will firms respond? Explain your choice and share your view of this tension pair's implications for the future. What are the positives, negatives, and shades of grey in the likely future you anticipate?

Pew received answers from 1,021 Internet stakeholders for an opt-in survey that had two scenarios about the future, specifically as it applies to 2020.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said tech firms based in democratic countries will abide by a set of norms to help citizens being "attacked or challenged by their governments." This would include not monitoring or blocking Internet activity of government protesters at the government's request, without facing repercussions in other markets.

But, many of those who predicted this scenario made the choice because it was their hope and not necessarily what they think would actually happen, according to the survey. A "significant amount" indicated that they think the opposite would actually happen.

They would join the 39 percent that said tech companies would give in and profit off restrictive processes at the behest of governments. Ten percent didn't respond.

The study received answers from those in academia as well as those within the industry at companies like Microsoft, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Nokia, and Verizon Wireless. The report includes several respondent comments, including fears that firms would start influencing the government and not the other way around, but it seemed the more optimistic of comments focused on consumer backlash as a way of keeping companies in check.

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, responded to the survey, pointing out that Western governments also want to monitor and restrict protesters. He said he hopes market pressures will keep firms from kowtowing to the government.

"I remain fairly optimistic...that firms that try to control content in response to government intervention will risk being abandoned in droves, and thus forced to stick to a reasonable path. We will see," he said in the report.

Mark Watson, senior engineer for Netflix, responded similarly. He said corporations will have to act more responsibly or face the consequences of their consumers protesting their products and services.

"Recent events and the perceived role of social media mark a watershed, which will prevent the second scenario coming about: firms that err too much on conceding to autocratic governments will be penalized by consumers (though I doubt by government as described in the first point)," he said in the report. Watson is also a participant in various global cooperative technology groups related to evolving the architecture of the Internet, including the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

On the other hand, Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at The Institute for the Future, said corporations will most likely give into to oppressive governments, but it won't matter.

"Large technology firms will inevitably cave in to governments' pressure to surveil and control citizens' activities. The good news is that grass roots, open source capabilities will grow increasingly useful for people to work around government penetration of our digital infrastructures."