It's an age-old business dilemma caught up in the new age of globalization: When governments demand something that compromises the interests of customers, what's a company to do?
That's the question now before American telecommunications and Internet companies.
This week, for example, Internet giant Google is launching a new search service in China that, because of government sensitivities there, will limit what users there can access. They already couldn't see links to objectionable sites. Now, they won't be able to use Google for e-mail messaging or writing blogs.
But at the same time as Google is acceding to some Chinese government demands, it is vigorously fighting US government efforts to obtain data on its users' search habits.
Some observers see a double standard. Others call it a careful balancing act. What's clear is that controversies over the electronic intrusiveness of government don't disappear in a data-glutted age. In fact, they're heating up.
Last week in a spirited speech, former Vice President Al Gore called on telecommunications companies to stop helping US federal agents hunt for terrorists by listening in on international calls without a warrant.
Some observers say Google needs to stand up to the US. "I would make absolutely no distinction between what's happening in China and what's happening in this country," says Geoffrey Bowker, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University in California. "The US government has [entered] the overreaching state that governments naturally fall into. They know the data's there. They want to use it.... I'm happy to see Google fighting it."
Others are appalled by the lack of cooperation, especially in time of war.
"I would like to think that there remains a reservoir - call it patriotism, if you will, or call it civic duty - within the private sector that does not require companies to be leaned on in order to cooperate," says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. "I have to ask the question: Are these companies, and Google comes to mind, putting up more of a fight to provide assistance to our government in protecting Americans than they are to [resist] Communist China? ... My guess is the answer is yes."
The US government claims to need the data to help reinstate a law aimed at blocking access to child pornography.
So far, Google seems to be winning points for its tough stand against the US Department of Justice. According to one survey released this week, 56 percent of American users of the Internet believe Google should not release information about Web searches to the government.
"Google is not a party to this lawsuit, and [the government's] demand for information overreaches," says Nicole Wong, associate general counsel at Google. "We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."
But overseas, Google has endured criticism, as has Microsoft's MSN search service, for limiting what Chinese users can find. Yahoo! China faced especially sharp rebuke last year for supplying data about Shi Tao, a dissident Chinese journalist and Yahoo! user now serving a 10-year jail term. Yahoo! China said it was simply abiding by local laws.
Unlike Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft complied with the US government's request because they say they weren't supplying personally identifiable data.
Such acquiescence is normal, industry insiders say. "I don't know if a lot of companies are in the business of civil disobedience," says Bruce Bernstein, president of the New York Software Industry Association. "In most cases, they would ask counsel, and in most cases, the lawyers would tell them to follow the path of least resistance. And they'll comply."
Still, companies are wary of the risks of being seen as negligent on privacy. Such concerns got a high-profile showcase on Martin Luther King Jr. Day when Mr. Gore addressed the issue in a widely reported speech. "Any telecommunications company that has provided the government with access to private information concerning the communications of Americans without a proper warrant should immediately cease and desist their complicity in this apparently illegal invasion of the privacy of American citizens."
In the meantime, high-tech companies with membership in Business for Social Responsibility are scrambling to tighten and clarify their privacy policies for customers before the government comes knocking again, says a spokesperson for the San Francisco-based group. Its advice: be forthright with the public if you do supply the government with information, and don't forget you have rights.