From Facebook to Google, Baidu to VKontakte, the world's biggest technology companies talk about their singular dedication to their users. Yet the road to becoming a global tech titan is inevitably lined with hard choices and conflicts of interest. Here are five prominent controversies where companies are accused of ceding to questionable demands of the government.
CHINA: BAIDU IN BED
The more than 600 million Internet users in China exercise their online freedom with serious limitations. While growing into the leading Chinese search engine, Baidu has acted as a continuous enforcer of the government's policies, including regularly blocking data with sensitive content. For instance you won't get far if you type in the terms "June Fourth" (å…å››), a reference to the June 4, 1989 massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Baidu censors every reference to the date, and mentions at the top of the page that "according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not displayed".
Similarly, the same sentence appears when you are looking for the words "Communist Bandits" (å…±åŒª), and "Tragic Communist Party" (å…±æƒ¨å…š). Baidu is the fifth most seen website in the world after Google, Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo!
MOROCCO: GOOGLE MAPS FOR A MONARCH
Google Maps is huge. Last summer, the new version of its application was downloaded more than one billion times on Android. It is in very plain terms how much of us see the world. But with this power comes responsibility.
In November, Morocco will celebrate 40 years since the Green March, which was a mass government-led demonstration to compel Spain to hand the Western Sahara over to Morocco. But this territory, which is bordered by three countries (Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania) and was occupied by Spain in the 19th century, continues to be disputed territory. Thus, on its website, Google Maps showed the boundary of this disputed zone by a dotted line.
Many Moroccan users disliked this outline and voiced it strongly, as Moroccan King Mohammed VI declared that the territory would always belong to the monarchy. In the face of the growing controversy, Google eventually deleted the dotted line — but only if you're viewing it in Morocco. It must be the latest version of the U.S. search giant's slogan: Don't be evil.
RUSSIA: VKONTAKTE PUT-IN PLACE
Vladimir Putin's Kremlin has a close eye on all that circulates, on and off line. VKontakte (VK), Russia's most popular social network boasts twice as many users in that country as Facebook. While Mark Zuckerberg's company risked last month getting blocked in Russia if it continued not to respect the country's internet laws, VK had been more obedient since its founder was forced out of Russiaâ€¦
Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, who was born in 1984, launched his social networking site in September 2006, and was eventually used as a way to organize anti-Putin demonstrations — and Durov quickly faced pressures from Moscow. In 2011, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) showed up at his apartment with guns drawn after he'd refused to take down the political protesters' VKontakte pages. On April 21, 2014, Durov was forced out of the company after having refused to give to the FSB personal data on users implicated in anti-government protests in Ukraine.
Today, VK is according to Durov himself, "under the complete control" of two close collaborators of the Russian President: CEO of Mail.ru Alisher Usmanov and "Russia's second-most powerful person" after Putin, Igor Sechin. Online magazine Motherboard reported that since Durov's removal, the social network is no longer a place of "political activism". Government opponents are using Facebook instead.
TURKEY: FACEBOOK'S CONTRADICTIONS
Facebook, with its 1.44 billion active users per month, is the epitome of social media power and influence. Its founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to declare the website is guided only by its free will. And yet, some countries manage to force Facebook to obey local laws even if they seem to contradict the Facebook way.
In Turkey, last January, the BBC noticed some Facebook pages depicting the Prophet Muhammad were blocked by the website on religious grounds. Indeed the social media had received a Turkish court order demanding that Facebook either censor the pages or the company would be banned from the country, where an estimated 40 million people are registered with the site. Facebook chose to comply with the order.
Zuckerberg explained at a conference in Bogotá that Facebook did its best for the users around the world "to express as much as possible," but many obstacles stood in the way. His aim was to fight for freedom of expression but breaking local laws was not the method to achieve it. "It will only block the service entirely. Which means millions of people will be deprived of the tools they were using to communicate with their friends and express as much as possible".
UNITED STATES: CISCO SYSTEMS GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE
The rivalry between China and the United States includes plenty of collateral damage in cyber security. Recently, it was the turn of U.S. technology giant Cisco Systems to bear the weight of this struggle.
The firm that sells networking equipment around the world was criticized in May 2014 by the China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China for being complicit with the American government, "exploiting its market advantage in the Chinese information networks, playing a disgraceful role and becoming an important weapon in the U.S. exploiting its power over the Internet".
As a result Cisco was removed from a list of brands that are approved for Chinese purchases. This boycott could hurt the company, as about 15% of its revenue comes from Asia.
China's mistrust toward Cisco can also be explained by Edward Snowden's revelations. The former US intelligence operative disclosed, among other things, that the National Security Agency (NSA) regularly intercepted and bugged Cisco routers before sending them to target adversaries.
Cisco spokesman John Earnhardt answered in a statement brought out on May, 28 that his company "did not work with any government to weaken our products for exploitation".
A Cisco server — Photo: Bob Mical