When is It Right to Cut Off Social Media and Telecoms?

Many years ago, before I ever knew what CSR was, I had a task to identify phone numbers in another country that were being used to carry pornographic services.  Bear with me on this!

Due to a peculiarity of the payment system for international calls at that time, a small foreign nation stood to gain a lot of money from such calls. By chance, the particular combination of international access code and country dialing code looked, to the uninitiated, like a London phone number. Cards with these numbers on them were being distributed to teenage boys in the UK, outside the gates of their schools. The boys were going home and staying on the phone for many hours, thinking they were making a UK call…until the bill came.   At the time, telco billing was quarterly and three months worth of a teenage boy’s calls to porn lines at international rates racked up quite a bill for some parents.

So, unbeknown to me, this was my first exposure to the complexities of the world of freedom of speech.  We know the numbers are misleading and targeting morally questionable services at minors, but is that sufficient reason to cut them off?

The important lesson is that the issues of cutting service are not simple.  They often involve balancing the competing claims of different value sets and moral interests and questions of precedent.

The same issues have come up in recent discussions of the right way to deal with social media in the light of such events as the London riots, actions by authorities in Egypt (and other countries) during the Arab Spring, and the action of BART in San Francisco to stop wireless service for a period on August 11 of this year. The Guardian saw this last one from the perspective of an organization trying to prevent a protest against them. BART saw it as a platform safety issue.

BARTs Web site; temporary wireless service interruption in select BART stations on Aug. 11

Guardian Web site; Bart’s attempt to kill free speech

The issues in potentially cutting off of pornographic services many years ago were technically easy but legally and morally complex.  Even today, telcos face challenges from those who want more ‘immoral’ material to be blocked, and those who see any limitations as censorship and think that all should be allowed. These are healthy discussions.

The issues today in responding to the gatherings in the Middle East, San Francisco and the UK are even more complex.  When does a peaceful demonstration become a safety concern, and when does it become a riot that intentionally endangers the public? When is safety an excuse for inhibiting simple freedom of speech?  In some cases, a response might be justified.  Others feel any interference with social media or telecoms is dangerous because of the precedent it sets.

I would also differentiate between cutting off service to all for a period of time (perhaps more akin to a curfew than to censorship), placing a restraining order on an individual and the authorities tapping into communications to determine the intentions of individuals before or after and event. Each is a different level of response and carries distinct moral hazard which has to be compared with the benefit.

The final complexity is the extent to which ones opinion depends on one’s own values and one’s perception of others’ values. Many in the western world would be more comfortable with a western government making a particular decision to cut off services than perhaps with the Chinese government or a pre-Arab Spring government making that same decision.

How do we resolve these complexities?

Perhaps one of our biggest principles of corporate responsibility – transparency – needs to come into play here. Secondly, the recognition that this is about competing ethical issues leads to a more constructive debate than characterizing the issues as black and white. And, thirdly, due process; it seems to me that one of the most important considerations is appropriate due process before services are cut by anyone.

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