So who is emailing in their bids?
“Good luck trying to find out,” said an executive at a technology company which sells products to many developing nations including Pakistan. “Nobody here is going to talk about that–nobody. Forget even getting something on background. And don’t you dare use our company name.”
That extra sensitivity is a response to our 24 x 7 age where companies find themselves under constant scrutiny and a PR disaster is only a tweet away. That increased transparency of the 21st century Internet age is forcing companies to be more circumspect about profiting from doing business with problematic regimes. Groups like the Global Network Initiative–co-founded by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–and Accessnow.org have urged tech companies not to respond to Pakistan’s request for proposals.
It’s rare for Silicon Valley companies to take public stands on free speech issues in other countries, but that’s changing. The plan to build a new system for Internet filtering and blocking in Pakistan has offered an opportunity for some to claim the high ground. McAfee earlier this week tweeted that it wasn’t going to send in an RFP but a spokesman said that future decisions would be applied on a case by case basis. Websense took a stronger stance, putting out a statement on its corporate website urging other companies to “say no to government censorship of the Internet in Pakistan.”
As a publicly-traded company, Websense has a financial duty to maximize shareholder value. But in an interview, interim CFO Michael Newman said the company is hoping that the positive publicity from refusing to do business with governments that censor the Internet will more than compensate for any potentially lost revenue. (The company does not disclose how much business it does regionally.)
Social responsibility hasn’t traditionally figured as a money maker on the corporate agenda, but Newman said that the uptick in media interest may change opinions.
“In general, the reason why companies are reacting differently is that… folks are being called to task more often than they were several years ago,” adding that pressure from organizations like GNI and the Electronic Frontier Foundation is making it harder for Silicon Valley firms to evade questions about the nature of the clients buying their products and services.
“What we hope is that this starts to put economic pressure on (other) companies to follow along,” Newman said, noting that the number of companies publicly removing themselves from participation in the Pakistani project remains small-for now.
“This kind of publicity will drive, hopefully, a customer backlash to make them think differently.”