Don’t be Evil — and prove it.

A new angle has recently come to light regarding the unrest in Iran: well known western companies provided the technology the government are using to eavesdrop on its citizens. The Washington Times and Wall Street Journal have reported on the fact that Nokia and Siemens have sold special equipment to Iran's state-owned telecommunications company, which can be used to tap phones, read email messages and observe who is accessing which internet sites. This is not the first such case. In 2006, Amnesty International drew attention to the assistance Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google had given to Chinese authorities in their attempts to suppress free speech on the internet in China. Finally, the networking giant, Cisco, has been a key player in setting up the hardware that China uses to block foreign websites with its 'Great Firewall'.

The actions of these companies are obviously cause for ethical concern: in providing the tools that authoritarian regimes use to suppress free speech, they would appear to be complicit in this repression. Like arms manufacturers who sell weapons to unstable countries, they profit from acts which allow others to cause great harm.

However, there is also an important disanalogy. The communications equipment and software is often 'dual-use': it can be used for good or bad purposes. For example, the systems from Nokia, Siemens, and Cisco can be used to block access to child pornography. In the case of Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google, it is unclear whether it is better to refuse to deal with the Chinese government or to agree to filter their search results and provide the Chinese people with a flawed — but still useful — search tool.

From outside, it is very difficult to tell what the motivations of these companies are, and whether or not they are acting in good faith. Due to a leak, we were able to find out that one of Cisco's powerpoint presentations to the Chinese government advertised their product's ability to "Combat 'Falun Gong' evil religion and other hostiles". Google has adopted "Don't be Evil" as an unofficial motto, but it is unclear how well they are living up to it.

A solution to this problem would be for companies working with such regimes to be much more transparent about their dealings. Transparency would let observers see whether the company is acting in good faith or not, and if a norm of transparency were developed, then we would know that companies who ignored it had something to hide. It won't be possible to be completely transparent (the foreign governments wouldn't allow their own side of the negotiations to be seen), but serious moves towards transparency would help those acting in good faith to preserve their reputations while making it harder for those who aren't.

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