After several American companies have been exposed when doing questionable business with repressive governments, Reporters Without Borders are proposing an ethical standard to be imposed on companies doing technology-related business with such nations. The companies should, among other things, be forced to incorporate a white-list of words – such as democracy or human rights, one would presume – that are rendered impossible to censor.

The argument is that the Yahoo’s and the Google’s was spawned out of – and thus are the products of – an environment where speech is free, and that such companies should not be allowed to make a buck by helping governments to deny that freedom from others.

In general terms, I think this is a terrific idea. Or rather – there shouldn’t even be a discussion: the companies themselves should shun business like this like the black plague. But I agree with Rebecca MacKinnon – it should, if at all possible, be resolved without involvement from government or the international community. It should be in the companies’ interest not to be perceived as money-hungry capitalists without conscience by their customers.

However, humor me for a second and consider the academic argument. This problem is a very good example of the inherent problem with an open society. If everybody is allowed to do whatever they want, manufacture whatever they want, trade with whomever they chose – eventually someone’s going to do something stupid, right? There can be no way of stopping that (…and if we could, or would, stop it – would society still be really free?).

My thoughts also linger on the practicalities behind the idea of a universal consensus around democratic principle. What is tolerated in a democracy is always defined within some kind of envelope, and what falls outside those invisible borders are not set in stone. Does not China, for example, have the same right to decide what threatens their society as the USA does? Just fifty years ago, America was witch-hunting communists because the American government believed there was a threat to the society, and today western governments see terrorists everywhere ? and are combating them with any means necessary. Wire-taps and data retention are just a few of the artifacts created by our open society as of late. And in Sweden, the police provides ISP’s with an IP-list to content we can’t tolerate within our open and democratic society. See, the envelope exists even here. We’re just so much closer to it.

This is, without doubt, not as easy as it seems – even though I firmly believe companies like Fortinet, known for trading with Burma, should seize their activities and adopt a voluntary code-of-conduct. By the way, does anybody know if there are ethical investment funds that screen for this kind of behavior?