According to a Reuters report, Senator Dick Durbin (D, Illinois) is drafting legislation that would require US technology companies to protect global human rights. Violations could result in criminal or civil penalties.
The Hill Blog quoted Durbin at a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law:
“The bottom line is this: With a few notable exceptions, the tech industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling to engage in a dialogue with Congress on … human rights challenges…
“Today, I’m announcing I will introduce legislation that will require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, or face civil and criminal liability. “
The legislation would likely require US tech companies doing business abroad to remain committed to unfiltered/uncensored access to technology and information while closely guarding users privacy. It comes on the heels of an alleged Chinese-cyber attack against Google. Google subsequently committed to stop censoring search engine results in China.
However, how far would the legislation go in regulating the creation, manufacturing and distribution process?
The legislation could have sweeping implications for tech companies that rely on numerous suppliers to provide hardware and software. Many large tech companies contract with multiple suppliers, who often subcontract with multiple other subcontractors. This makes it difficult (and in some cases, maybe impossible) for companies to keep track of what goes on overseas even if the company has an active audit program.
It will be interesting to see how Durbin defines “human rights” and “reasonable steps.” It immediately calls to mind Apple’s recent admission that underage workers manufactured some of their computer components in China. Would Apple be subject to civil or criminal liability for the violation or would their internal audit and action be deemed reasonable steps? It would likely be the latter, but it is interesting to consider how far the legislation could reach.
It is also important to consider which government branch would receive the burden of investigating and prosecuting violations.
Durbin provided some hint into the direction of his legislation when he urged tech companies to join the Global Network Initiative (GNI). GNI is an NGO committed safeguarding free speech, privacy and “responsible company decision making.” Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo are among participants of GNI that commit to follow GNI’s implementation of guidelines towards “the advancement of user rights to freedom of expression and privacy.” The cost to join GNI is based on annual revenue and can range from $2,000 to $60,000. It is possible that Durbin’s legislation may mirror GNI’s core principles.
In reality, this legislation has yet to be drafted, and it has a long road before it would ever hit the President’s desk – including facing the business lobby. However, speculation over such a law’s reverberations will likely run wild.