Much has been made in the last month of Twitter's unexpected role in Iran's ongoing political upheaval. The social-networking tool became the de facto method of communication among those protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's questionable re-election, in the process earning widespread accolade for giving voice to the people.
Twitter's enabling role in Iran dovetailed quite closely with American foreign policy interests, allowing Washington to maintain a plausible distance as foment was spread across the Islamic Republic. It is not always the case, however, that America's technology firms operate in sync with our country's interests abroad.
At times, in fact, our technology companies operate at cross-purposes with Washington, their software and hardware serving not to facilitate democratic aspirations, but to quash them. In Burma and China, where access to information is tightly controlled by the government, two Silicon Valley firms -- respectively, Fortinet and Cisco -- built and have maintained the massive firewalls that hamper the public's ability to access and disseminate information.
When our nation's companies play prominent roles in other countries' business, all sorts of complicated questions arise. Ask the European consortium, Nokia Siemens Network, that built the communications infrastructure in Iran. The consortium has come under heavy criticism for providing the Iranian regime with the ability to monitor telecommunication traffic. Yet it is the very same consortium that has provided those opposed to the regime with a robust network for tweeting, posting and texting.
When faced with such a dilemma, what ought American firms do? To date, our technology companies have gotten little guidance from Washington, which has foot dragged on codifying a set of operating standards. More often than not, the American government has left the industry to regulate itself.
To some degree, technology companies have proven themselves up to the task. This year, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and others launched the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary framework for respecting, protecting and advancing human rights in all countries where the companies operate. The alliance is to be applauded for securing public pledges from Internet companies to refrain from censorship and from divulging personal information to any government that is not committed to an international standard of free expression and privacy.
Yet it ought not be forgotten that a driving force for the Global Network Initiative was an incident two years ago in which Yahoo! acted in a far less noble manner. Pressed by Beijing, the Internet giant divulged the identity of a Chinese democracy activist, leading to his detention, alleged torture and sentencing to 10 years of hard labor in prison.
The Global Network Initiative is a major step in the right direction, but far better cooperation and partnership is needed between America's business leaders and policymakers. In the case of Iran, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google all played an important role and demonstrated both remarkable flexibility and good political judgment -- independent of a still-hesitating White House. YouTube relaxed its rules on video broadcasts to allow the global dissemination of the amateur film of the bloody death of Neda Agha Soltan, while Google pulled forward the launch of its Farsi-language search engine and translation tool. For better and for worse, America's technology companies have a demonstrated record of driving crucial foreign policy outcomes, and Washington must make its concerns known when it believes a foreign cause is just.
A model for cooperation can be found in the events of recent weeks in Iran, with Twitter again playing a central role. During the first few days after the election, communication among, to and from protesters was exponentially higher than normal. Twitter was scheduled to perform maintenance on its system, but at the request of the State Department, the company postponed the routine work in order to avoid interruptions in service.
The innocuous request from the State Department and Twitter's granting of it are the kind of cooperation between government and business that ought to be extended to other areas of foreign policy. That is not to imply, of course, that American technology companies should blindly pursue the interests of Washington, nor Washington the technology companies'. But when those interests overlap, as they did recently in Iran, greater cooperation is both good politics and good for business. Twitter, Google, and YouTube do not come with a "Made in the U.S.A." label, but the Iranian people may not notice the difference.
Michael Shtender-Auerbach is founder and chief executive of Social Risks LLC, an international risk management firm.