04 December 2012

Are tech companies global sovereigns?

Last week the Internet in Syria disappeared.
The communications shutdown immediately evoked memories of similar action by Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and it sparked fears that President Bashar al-Assad could be preparing to take even harsher action against Syrian opposition forces, which have recently made significant advances in the battle against the government.
It's no surprise that local rebels, pitted against the Syrian government, have used online tools to coordinate their activities. While the Syrian government denies they actually shut down the 'net, they also told an obvious lie at the same time (they said their major airport was open, but it's closed) and most international observers think it was an intentional strike intended to disrupt the opposition or perhaps launch a new attack.

But then something happened - Google and Twitter turned it back on. Or at least some small part of it.
Google and Twitter have announced they have reactivated a voice-tweet program to allow Syrians affected by the shutdown of the Internet to get messages out.
The companies did this before in Egypt, when that country tried to disrupt the organized resistance there.  The US government was apparently prepared for this sort of thing, having sent 2000 "communications kits" to selected people in Syria. (I'm not sure how they did that without significant blowback.)

Since the Syrian government denies they cut the 'net, they can't really protest effectively if tech companies try to fix things.  But if this is what all the national security experts say it is, then I'm thinking it's just a matter of time before countries across the world take the extraordinary step of recalling the ambassador from Google.

Because it seems that's the level these tech companies are playing on.

I've written  on the power companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have exerted over cultural and some political issues.  But this is different.  This is geopolitical security.  These are issues of sovereignty and war and revolution.   While what they're doing right now may be helpful, I think it's fair to think about how much power we want to give the folks who help us play Angry Birds, find a good local restaurant, or share pictures of our kids.

Read Rebecca McKinnon's Consent of the Networked and check out her blog - she's the most authoritative and clear voice I've heard on the topic. 

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