American Values And American Tech Companies Overseas

Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch has written another passionate post this weekend arguing (as he has done previously) that American companies operating in foreign lands should uphold American laws (and values) when dealing with local authorities.

The particular case related to a man in India who was arrested for posting to an Orkut group named “I hate Sonia Ghandi.” The crime in Michael’s eyes was two fold: firstly the man should not have been arrested for practicing free speech, but the bigger crime was that Google co-operated with local authorities in handing over his IP address so he could be found. Michael contends that American companies (in this case Google) should disobey local laws: “Our companies have to decide if they’ll defy the law and take the consequences.”

As usual there has been a range of opinions for and against; those outside the United States tend to favor the notion that companies should obey local law, those within the United States argue that Google should ignore local law (and in part that American law is supreme).

The Facts

Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid was arrested for posting “derogatory content about Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi.” Other reports also use the world vulgar as well as derogatory. Notably the founder of the “I hate Sonia Gandhi” Orkut group has not been arrested as according to a local police spokesman “hating Sonia Gandhi is the personal opinion of the person who formed the community. Having a personal opinion about someone is not an offense as per the law.” So very clearly this isn’t a clear cut free speech case; the offense wasn’t providing a negative opinion of Gandhi, the offense was writing “derogatory” content about Gandhi. Lets put this into Western terms: Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid defamed Gandhi.

Now in most Western countries defamation is a civil matter and not a criminal one, but this doesn’t appear to be the case in India, where defamation, at least here (it’s not clear whether this is a law only relating to public figures or all people) is a criminal matter with a maximum penalty of 5 years in jail. It’s still defamation however, a concept that is completely with standing under Western, and more notably American law. Another side note: Indian legal processes like much of the Commonwealth has its foundations in English law. From Wikipedia

Indian law refers to the system of law which operates in India. It is largely based on English common law because of the long period of British colonial influence during the British Raj period. Much of contemporary Indian law shows substantial European and American influence.

And here is where it gets interesting in terms of the human rights aspect:

Indian laws also adhere to the United Nations guidelines on human rights law and environmental law.

So this case falls within a set a laws that are compliant with United Nations guidelines on human rights and as a case of defamation is within the scope of English Common Law and even American Law.

Google’s Role

Google’s only role in the matter is in providing identifying information to local authorities. Local media reports do not specify under which laws authorities obtained the information from Google, we only know that the request definitely came from investigating officers. Without knowing the fine points of Indian law, but knowing its basis in English Common Law, we can guess that the authorities had the legal right to obtain the information, be it via request or (as is often the case) via court order. Google India has simply complied with local law in handing over the information, in a legal case that complied with UN human rights standards.

Michael’s argument (and others) is that Google is evil in handing this information over to local authorities, but since when is complying with a legal request from a democratically elected Government with laws that comply with established UN human rights standards evil?

Consider a reverse situation: a foreign company is operating in the United States and is asked to provide information on a “suspected terrorist” and they know that in providing that information the suspect will not face a fair trial, may be held in detention for years without even the most basic rights under the Geneva Convention, and may be tortured as well? If they don’t provide the information they face the risk of penalty or even imprisonment themselves.

The outcry in the United States if a foreign company failed to comply with local law would make an old fashioned lynching seem like a picnic in the park. So what gives any American the right to dictate that American companies operating in foreign lands should be above local law in return?

The Reasonable View

We don’t know all the facts in this case; we don’t know what exactly this person is alleged to have written. On western standards the arrest of anyone for practicing free speech is abhorrent and absolutely there should be international concern in this case. However, there is a world of difference between expressing concern about an arrest in the foreign country, to suggesting that American companies should be part of seditious exercises against democratically elected foreign Governments. The first is resonable, the second is American Imperialism at its worst.

India is not a third world, tin-pot dictatorship, it is a country that supports the rule of law and complies with international human rights standards. Their law in this case may be an ass, but so are many laws in many countries, including the United States.

Footnote: I should add that this is an argument for India and other democratic countries that are compliant with UN human rights standards. One commenter at TechCrunch suggested I would have advocated a blind eye to the Nazis, and this is completely wrong. There are many countries in this world which have no respect for human rights, and there is a case that American companies are better off not operating in them at all. This isn’t the case with India.