Communications technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’ve seen the so-called Iranian Twitter revolution; on the other, accusations that Nokia provided electronic surveillance tools enabling the Iranian government to crack down on the post-election protest movement.
So the sword can cut both ways: with public opinion holding communication companies to a higher standard than firms that provide other utilities, because the services they provide are essential to freedom of expression in today's world.
While companies such as Google and Twitter have won PR points for having a campaigning aspect in providing public information, they also have to realise that if they then go on to take purely business-model decisions, public opinion can swing back against them.
Nokia has argued that there’s a ‘net-benefit’ in supplying their ‘lawful intercept’ technology to countries with a less than stellar human rights record. They say they have to fulfil the legal obligations of each country they operate in, but ultimately they are empowering ordinary Iranians.
(The Nokia spokesperson also denied that the company provides online surveillance tools to the Iranian regime - although the Wall Street Journal has said that they are sticking by their story.)
Nokia’s ‘net benefit’ argument is similar to the one Google made when it launched a heavily censored version of its search engine in China. Some saw the move as a brazen violation of its famed “Don’t Be Evil” corporate motto. Not that Google didn’t take the criticism seriously - in response, the company created its own, ahem, ‘scale of evil’.
"We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve [China] at all was worse evil," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, fearlessly breaking new ground both morally and grammatically.
I’m not sure exactly how Google’s evil scale works, but I’m fairly sure it’s linked to Google’s money-making scale. Otherwise its unclear how making a lot of cash through supporting a repressive political regime is morally superior to, well, not supporting it.
China isn’t stupid – its political class knows that their continued grip on power is to a large extent dependent on continued economic development and rising living standards. They also know how crucial Western technological expertise is to its continued economic growth.
The question is, what principles should corporations adhere to in their international dealings?
At the moment, we’ve got: ‘Don’t be evil. Unless it pays.’