Since Jan. 25, the streets of Cairo have been thronged with people demanding a change in the political structure of the country. Egypt has been “democratically” ruled by military strongman Hosni Mubarak since Anwar Sadat was murdered in 1981.
In response to the unrest, which was inspired by the Tunisian uprising of late January and enjoys Western support in its demand for real democracy, President Mubarak ordered the Internet shut down. On Jan. 28, three of the four Internet providers in Egypt had gone offline, effectively shutting the country’s access down. Noor Group, the lone holdout, stopped shuttling information into and out of the country on Jan. 31.
Clearly, this is a problem. The Internet has widely been acknowledged as one of the greatest democratizing forces in human history, and access to it should almost be considered a basic, inalienable human right. When a government, the body that is supposed to protect civil liberties, does the exact opposite, what can be done? What should be done?
In the past, citizens could fight their regime and risk further oppression, or quietly submit to the authorities.
Now, however, in an age where certain people and companies enjoy far more wealth than many nations, there is a fourth option: corporate intervention. As promising as it may seem initially, this option holds disturbing implications.
Google and Twitter came to the Egyptian people’s rescue on the last weekend of January, developing a program with alarming speed that allows people to call specific phone numbers and leave voicemails which are then turned into text and tweeted with the hashtag #Egypt. This software was immensely helpful to the people of Egypt, who were deprived of an important way of keeping foreigners involved in what was happening and what they are trying to achieve.
The two tech companies deserve commendation for stepping in to ensure the Egyptian people’s freedom of speech, but it is important to think about why they did this. As information traffickers, both companies rely on a free flow of information to do business. In this case, the needs of the people and the needs of the companies dovetailed. Twitter and Google were thus motivated to stand up for and ensure the Egyptian people’s freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, this is not what happens in every instance. Yahoo was sued in 2007 after it willingly shared information with the Chinese government that led to the arrest of a political dissident. Clothing companies take advantage of the desperate conditions in impoverished nations to employ workers for long days in subpar conditions and to pay them less than enough to eat. And oil companies are notorious for propping up abusive dictatorships, such as those in Sudan and Saudi Arabia.
Clearly, then, not all corporations have as much interest in standing up for the rights of others. Even Google agreed to censor its content in order to do business in China, though it eventually stopped doing so.
When companies put in resources to improve the lot of those in need, we should be appropriately thankful. But we should remain wary of businesses whose main objective is to make money when they begin to move into the domain of governments, whose main obligation is to protect their citizens.
And we should remember that when it is no longer in their interest to uphold human rights, companies — unlike governments — have no obligation to do so.