Why you should care
From Saudi Arabia to China to Turkey, this dilemma is shaping how American tech firms do business overseas.
It only took Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a few hours to publicly criticize President Donald Trump’s January 2017 executive order banning the U.S. entry of travelers from certain Muslim-dominated nations. His response — soon echoed by several other Silicon Valley CEOs — was in keeping with the traditionally liberal principles promoted by American tech companies: pro-immigration, pro-freedom of expression and supportive of rights for the LGBTQ community and women. Look beyond the U.S., though, and their stances seem less consistent.
The international outrage following the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of the Saudi Arabian regime, made multiple technology leaders pull out of Riyadh’s 2018 Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference last month. But Khashoggi’s murder is just one of a growing series of tests American tech giants are facing globally that reflect a deepening divide between businesses and the principles they espouse at home.
Saudi Arabia is the single largest funding source for U.S. startups, according to PitchBook, which has seen the country invest at least $11 billion since mid-2016, either directly or through SoftBank’s Vision Fund. Multiple private tech companies have accepted investment from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) — including Magic Leap, WeWork and Slack. In September, Google formally confirmed to Congress its plans to launch a censored search engine for China, under an initiative called Project Dragonfly, despite protests from its own employees. Rarely on the same side, Vice President Mike Pence and Human Rights Watch have independently criticized the project.
Facebook conceded earlier this year that it allowed Russian internet giant Mail.ru a two-week window beyond the norm to wind down a controversial feature that allowed app developers to compile their users’ friends’ data from Facebook. And in October, Facebook launched a special “lite” app for Turkey, demonstrating its intent to expand there, even though the firm’s own data shows Turkey as the country where content on the social media platform is most censored.
The way tech companies respond to requests for data can have a huge impact on human rights.
Cynthia Wong, senior researcher, Human Rights Watch
The gains for tech firms are clear, whether it’s investments from wealthy partners like Saudi Arabia or access to the world’s most populous country, China, where Google and its products are currently banned. Still, to simply label this approach from American tech firms as choosing money over values they claim to hold dear domestically would be to miss the complexities involved with such decisions, caution experts. In many cases, the products these firms are offering in closed nations could still help open them up. What is clear, though, is that these firms find themselves increasingly in the crosshairs of a heated debate that has boiled over following Khashoggi’s murder.
“The cynical thing to say is that these decisions are profit-based,” says Robert Föehl, executive-in-residence for business law and ethics at Ohio University. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it’s more useful to ask tech companies how they can help the country modernize rather than demanding that they pull out from the country altogether, Föehl says. There’s an opportunity, he explains, to provide “good jobs, wages and education.”
There’s no denying the tension that defines the relationship many American tech firms are pursuing with opaque regimes. In 2016, Uber accepted $3.5 billion from PIF — it remains the largest investment in a venture-backed company from an overseas government. A prominent Saudi leader, Yasir al-Rumayyan, sits on Uber’s board of directors. Following the Khashoggi killing, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi pulled out of the FII conference in Riyadh, but he has yet to comment on whether he will cut financial ties with the country. OZY reached out to Uber, Facebook and Google for comment. None responded.
Tech by its very nature is a rapidly evolving industry, so new ethical issues will continually arise. But the contradiction between firms’ domestic practices and demands by overseas governments has been growing. In 2015, the Turkish government requested Facebook, Twitter and YouTube remove political content related to Turkish involvement in the Syrian conflict. The companies complied. After the arrests of 11 Kurdish-backed politicians in 2016, Turkey slowed down the three social media platforms so much that they became unusable. Yet only last month Facebook chose Turkey to receive exclusive access to Facebook Lite for iOS — a slimmed-down version of the full app that uses less data — suggesting censorship isn’t a deal breaker.
If Project Dragonfly is any indication, Google doesn’t consider censorship a taboo either. In September, Google’s chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, confirmed the company is planning to create a censored search engine for China. About 1,400 Google employees signed a letter voicing opposition to the project, and senior research scientist Jack Poulson stepped down from the company, later revealing in a letter to the Senate that he believes Dragonfly directly contradicts Google’s own artificial intelligence principles regarding human rights. Human Rights Watch, in an open letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, pointed out how in 2010 Google itself had cited restrictions to freedom of expression online in China when it withdrew from the country.
Google still plans to move forward with the project. But the response from its employees points to the growing influence of tech workers, says tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, founder of the All Tech Is Human initiative. “Employees are starting to ask, ‘Is this really an embodiment of our company culture?’” he says. “Google expanding in China really set employees off, because curbing free speech means you’re no longer a neutral actor.” Polgar doesn’t think the overseas business of companies like Facebook and Google is inherently nefarious — they just need to recognize that the conversation is changing. “Before, companies viewed questions of ethics as a dialogue between the company and the public,” says Polgar. “Now, it’s between the company, the public, regulators, the media and their employees.”
But who gets to decide if internet censorship is corrupt? Nicholas Kinports, the founder of high-end audio equipment manufacturer Lonelybrand, does business in Shenzhen — considered China’s Silicon Valley — year-round. He doesn’t think Chinese mainlanders are critical of Project Dragonfly. “We see it as negative, but they don’t,” Kinports says. What he observes in China is not an unhappy, oppressed society. “The Chinese tech market may eclipse the U.S. market entirely in a decade,” he says. “American tech companies have to at least try to tap into that customer base.”
Cynthia Wong, senior internet researcher for Human Rights Watch, says that sometimes American social media platforms are the most open platforms for free speech in countries with restrictive regimes. “In Vietnam, for example,” Wong says, “free speech is stifled in traditional media, but on Facebook people can speak a little more freely.” Google’s Pichai has also argued that Project Dragonfly will give ordinary Chinese people access to information — on cancer treatments, for instance — that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Still, it’s a double-edged sword, Wong cautions. Many times, these governments are monitoring what people are saying and doing on the platforms. In 2005, Chinese activist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly providing state secrets to foreign entities after Yahoo gave the government access to his email account. “The way tech companies respond to requests for data can have a huge impact on human rights,” says Wong.
Giving up on expansion isn’t an option for any tech firm. Appearing to forfeit values they claim to subscribe to comes with its own risks. For American tech firms, this dilemma is likely to only grow.