Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised that the U.S. would once again become a leader in promoting global Internet freedom. And here in the U.S., human rights advocacy must begin at home. A good start would be to restore meaningful limits on some PATRIOT Act powers. Another would be to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
National security policies that give short shrift to civil liberties place global technology companies in the difficult position of deciding which national laws to comply with and which laws to challenge. And transparency is tough for a corporation to pull off alone.
Companies are understandably afraid that going public with the details of an agreement with one government would immediately set a floor for demands by every other country.
Joint action is the answer. Companies must work with their competitors to articulate strong, shared standards for what kinds of surveillance demands they will comply with, and under what standards. Otherwise, it will be all too easy for countries to pick off companies one-by-one.
What's more, RIM and other communications service providers should not be left out there to resist government demands alone. Technology companies need the concerted support of human rights advocates and of countries and international institutions that care about Internet freedom to bring greater transparency to such arrangements and to set high standards for governmental access to communications.
The Global Network Initiative strives to provide practical guidance for exactly these kinds of ethical dilemmas, as well as a platform for joint action alongside human rights NGOs.
RIM's dilemma is a real-time object lesson reminding us that companies should aggressively advocate for legal standards that respect human rights in all countries in which they operate, democratic and non-democratic alike. The "BlackBerry Factor" hasn't fully played out and the eventual outcome is still very much in doubt.
What ultimately happens between RIM and the various countries pressuring it to compromise its corporate values and customer trust will be used as a kind of playbook for other collisions between companies and government interest in the years to come.
Leslie Harris is president and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.