Hardware Risk: China Targets PC Manufacturers

What happens when the Chinese request all PC's include internal hardware mechanisms for the tracking and monitoring of its users?
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The Chinese censorship authorities have a new target - PC manufacturers. By the end of June '09, China wants all personal computer manufacturers, including US-based Dell, HP, and Apple, to install censorship software prior to sale in China. The software called 'Green Dam,' developed by the Chinese military, is ostensibly purposed for the filtering of pornography. However, many believe the software may act like spyware to allow the authorities to not only filter pornography, but to filter and track computer activity online or offline that is considered a threat to the State.

Yesterday, a number of US-based trade associations put out this brief statement:

"The Information Technology Industry Council, the Software & Information Industry Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association and TechAmerica urge the Chinese government to reconsider implementing its new mandatory filtering software requirement and would welcome the opportunity for a meaningful dialogue. We believe there should be an open and healthy dialogue on how parental control software can be offered in the market in ways that ensure privacy, system reliability, freedom of expression, the free flow of information, security and user choice."

While the sentiment is right, it falls short of an appropriate response. The PC industry is in for a big wake-up call.

PC industry leaders should learn from their counterparts at Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, who last year launched the Global Network Initiative (GNI). The GNI is a multi-stakeholder initiative made up of ICT industry leaders, NGO's and social value investors that supports a voluntary framework to respect, protect, and advance human rights in all the countries in which they operate. This alliance was the culmination of efforts to secure public commitments from Internet companies against censoring and divulging personal information to Chinese authorities, or to others who have not committed to an international standard of free expression and privacy.

In fact, the GNI should encourage the participation of the PC Industry at their table where the existing framework is very well suited to the problem. One can only imagine that the demand for loading censorship software on PC's in China is just a first step. What happens when the Chinese request all PC's include internal hardware mechanisms for the tracking and monitoring of its users?

Along with the GNI Principles, the Industry should look to the work of John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative on business and human rights. Last year, the team launched a three-part "framework" for corporate responsibility, which includes the state's duty to protect human rights, the duty of business to respect human rights, and the need for effective access to remedies for human rights abuses. The work of John Ruggie has single-handedly increased international recognition that business must respect human rights.

A proactive approach is the only play here. With 40 million PC's sold in China last year, the importance of how the Industry responds is paramount. Thanks to Yahoo! and Google, lessons have already been learned; the response from NGO's, government, and social investors is a foregone conclusion. Whether they join the GNI or not, PC makers must use all the tools at their disposal; these options include cooperation with the State Department, Commerce Department and Congress in order to ensure license to operate in China while respecting freedom of expression and privacy for all its users.

Michael Shtender-Auerbach is the Chief Executive of Social Risks LLC

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