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Risky Business in Russia

Yesterday, Cisco announced a more than one billion dollar initiative to leapfrog innovation in Russia’s ICT sector. As part of the Skolkovo Project, Cisco will establish a “physical presence” in Skolkovo, relocate employees from its engineering team to the area, and launch Skolkovo as a model for Cisco’s “Smart+Connected Communities” by building networked infrastructure that enables a range of technologies like the smart grid, smarter transportation information hubs, and public safety surveillance hubs.

The release describing the project is short on details, and Cisco’s stated intent to “create jobs and improve quality of life for citizens” through its Skolkovo operations certainly sounds laudable. But the initiative raises a number of preliminary questions around the potential human rights impact of Cisco’s operations in Russia.  Investment in information and communications technology (ICT) can certainly spur innovation and advance economic and social goals.  But these same technologies can be easily used by governments to monitor citizens, stifle online political dissent, and jeopardize a range of other human rights.  Technology companies must tread carefully lest they become complicit in such state actions, particularly in places where governments have a demonstrated record of human rights violations committed with the aid of ICTs, or the aid of ICT companies themselves.  

Russia’s record on human rights online should be raising eyebrows within any company that takes its corporate responsibility seriously.  Recent human rights reports describe the government’s expansive online surveillance activities and the intimidation and persecution of Russian bloggers and website owners to stifle content that is critical of incumbents. In many cases, the government enlists the help of local service providers to enable surveillance capability or selectively curb opinion online.  An OpenNet Initiative report describes how a set of laws requires ISPs to “install monitoring devices on their servers and route all transmissions in real time” through Federal Security Service (FSB) offices, and gives the FSB “carte blanche” access to user information with little oversight. Freedom House has ranked the Russian Internet as only “partly free,” and Reporters Without Borders has placed Russia “under surveillance” in its most recent Internet enemies report. The risks to human rights that these trends pose are heightened when we consider that most traditional media within Russia are in some part state controlled, and that the Russian Internet now represents the most open platform for freedom of expression today.  

For any responsible ICT company looking to do business in Russia, these reports should prompt key questions: What risks do my products and services pose to freedom of expression and privacy to Russian citizens?  What strategies can I adopt to mitigate those risks?  How can I avoid complicity in governmental abuses of human rights? 

These issues aren’t new; the dialogue around corporate responsibility and human rights in the ICT sector has been ongoing for years.  Cisco in particular has testified before Congress twice since 2006 about the human rights implications of its China business operations. And of course, the Global Network Initiative presents a constructive framework for guiding those companies who want to both do well and do good.  The direction that Cisco’s Skolkovo Project ultimately takes — and its ability to, indeed, “improve quality of life” by advancing human rights — will depend on just how Cisco decides to respond to these key questions of corporate responsibility.