Pew survey: Tech companies will have mixed record on dealing with repressive regimes

The respondents predicted continued tension between profit motive and corporate goodwill

Internet experts are divided over whether technology companies will cooperate in the coming decade with repressive regimes that seek to limit or monitor individual Internet use, according to a study released Monday by the Pew Research Center and Elon University.

Roughly half the Internet experts responding to a 2011 online survey believed that by 2020, technology companies based in democratic countries will be expected to adhere to norms for protecting international users' freedom of expression under potentially repressive regimes.

However, about 40 percent said the desire for profits would lead the companies to intentionally limit their products' usefulness for political dissent in order to operate in countries with repressive regimes. Ten percent did not respond to the question.

"It's going to be a mix of the two scenarios, both trends are going to continue," said Janna Anderson, the study's co-author and the director of Elon's Imagining the Internet Center.

The study addressed the tactics of "spying, blocking and filtering" that governments have sometimes used to limit citizen protests, Anderson said. In written explanations of their answers, some of the respondents also considered technology companies' ability to create systems that are resistant to central control. Those systems can make it more difficult for governments to block services, as the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak did to Twitter during the protests that led to its ouster last year.

One example of the sorts of scenarios probed in the survey involves Google's operations in China. The company has navigated between pressure from the Chinese government to filter search results and pressure from people in the West to provide Chinese citizens with unfettered access to the Web.

Neither Google nor Twitter immediately responded to requests for comment.

Respondents to the survey emphasized the great potential that Internet technology holds for individuals.

"Far beyond platitudes like 'don't be evil,' the engineers who develop new technologies will have both the inclination and incentive to design them to be resistant to central control and to undermine autocratic behaviors," wrote Jeffrey Alexander, a senior analyst at SRI International.

But they were cynical about larger organizations, both governments and corporations.

"Most companies will publicly state that they are doing everything possible to protect citizens while making countless concessions and political decisions that will end up harming citizens," wrote Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research.

"Technology is a double-edged sword,'" Anderson said.

The report was originally scheduled to be released on Tuesday. It was released a day early because on Monday the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed a resolution supporting the right to free expression on the Internet.

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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