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Will tech firms cooperate with oppressive regimes? Experts are split

Imagining the Internet
Pew Research / Elon University

A Pew Research Center survey of more than 1,000 tech experts provoked a divided response as respondents weighed in on how oppressive governments might or might not find willing partners in major tech companies like Google and Apple. Their diverse explanations make for interesting reading in light of Thursday's historic UN decision declaring free expression on the Internet a human right.

The experts surveyed range from professors to engineers to lobbyists, and were called upon to answer this question: In 2020, will tech companies be bound by certain universal requirements to protect their users from oppressive regimes, or will they take further steps to accommodate governments, such as turning over private information and allowing state-directed censorship?

Just over half the participants felt that the former would be the case, that service providers and other tech companies would have a sort of code of ethics, official or unofficial. But more than 40 percent felt the opposite would come to pass, with corporations and governments getting cozier by the year.

A fairly even split, but survey-takers were given the chance to explain their answers, and many did. Among the more positive takes, people noted that both the spirit of capitalism and the democratic nature of the Internet would force companies to stay at least somewhat honest.

"Firms that try to control content in response to government intervention will risk being abandoned in droves, and thus forced to stick to a reasonable path," said Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft. Or as Lee W. McKnight, professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University, puts it, "Being closely associated with suppressing legitimate protest movements through use of a firm’s technology will be bad for business." 

Furthermore, adoption and adaptation of new technology is more likely to occur in a bottom-up fashion. "Dissidents are more technology-savvy than dictatorships, and they will be able to repurpose digital technologies to serve their purposes more effectively than central governments will be able to use them for surveillance and suppression, said Jeffrey Alexander, senior policy analyst, SRI International, noting that "the more pertinent danger is when corporations themselves become centers of power."

And that's the optimistic view. The pessimists argue that things are going to get worse before they can get better.

"Technology firms have every incentive to cooperate with repressive regimes, and even the so-called ‘democratic’ countries will find reasons to filter and censor the Internet in the coming years," said Peter J. McCann, senior staff engineer for Futurewei Technologies and chairman of the Mobile IPv4 Working Group of the Internet Engineering Task Force. "Unless some dramatic political change happens that causes people to rise up against censorship, these trends will continue indefinitely."

If there's a silver lining, it's that old Princess Leia line, that the more the Empire squeezes, the more rebels will slip through its fingers.

As Mike Liebhold, senior researcher at The Institute for the Future puts it, "Large technology firms will inevitably cave in to governments' pressure to surveil and control citizens' activities. The good news is that grass roots, open source capabilities will grow increasingly useful for people to work around government penetration of our digital infrastructures."

One anonymous respondent suggests that the most pragmatic approach for companies is usually to play both sides:

Even the most evil of corporations today recognizes that playing by the rules, while at the same time ‘gaming them’ is much better than flagrant disregard. I suspect all sorts of technical compliance with the letter of the law, even as I suspect as the same time much disregard of the spirit of the law.

But perhaps the most realistic answer is simply that it will continue to be a conflict between the online equivalents of good and evil. The standings at any given time, be it 2012 or 2020 or 2050, will always be in flux, but the players will be the same. Says another tech expert, who requested anonymity:

Both trends will continue in a kind of yin and yang struggle. There will always be black hats and Blackwaters, and there will always be white hat hackers and Wikileaks. 

The survey is available for download here, and you can read all of the responses there as well, both credited and anonymous. The research by Pew's Internet & American Life Project was conducted with the cooperation of Elon University in North Carolina, and is part of a series about the future of the Internet, with new reports being issued about every month.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for His personal website is