Supporting Free Expression Is Good for Business

Multinational corporations stand to benefit from improved freedom of expression in the countries where they operate. Recognizing this, some are already lending their support.

Multinational corporations stand to benefit from improved freedom of expression in the countries where they operate. Recognizing this, some are already lending their support.

In March 2015, Angolan journalist and human rights activist Rafael Marques de Morais appeared in court to face multiple counts of criminal defamation—with a penalty of up to nine years in prison and $1.2 million in damages—for reporting on the military’s involvement in over 500 cases of torture and 100 murders in a diamond-mining district in the country. In response, three prominent jewelers (Tiffany and Co., Leber Jeweler, and Brilliant Earth) joined an international campaign on Marques’s behalf, issuing statements and signing letters from press freedom advocates to Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos.

Unfortunately, such examples of overt corporate support for freedom of expression—particularly outside the internet sector—are too infrequent in the context of a global squeeze on fundamental freedoms. From Egypt to Ecuador, from Russia to Rwanda, governments are increasingly harassing, detaining, imprisoning, and attacking activists and others for publicly opposing official policies or practices. At times, multinational corporations have even been complicit in such abuses. They have employed private security guards or supplied state security forces that have reportedly been implicated in human rights abuses in places like Nigeria, and used defamation laws to deter those who speak out about the human rights impact of their operations in Malaysia and other countries. 

Businesses have a legal and ethical responsibility to respect freedom of expression. But for a variety of reasons, it is also in their long-term interest to support this basic right in the countries where they operate:

Freedom of expression ensures a level playing field for businesses. Journalists and civil society organizations that investigate and expose corruption help level the playing field for U.S. and other foreign companies in a given country, ensuring that all businesses play by the same rules. But in places where the laws do not protect freedom of expression or the justice system does not enforce such guarantees, reporters and activists cannot pursue their work, and foreign companies are more likely to contend with cronyism, bribery, and extortion.

It supports stable business operations. Many of the same restrictive laws that are used against activists can also be employed to penalize corporations. In addition, protections for freedom of expression promote transparency and access to information, which reduces uncertainty and the likelihood of unfounded litigation. 

It prevents conflicts with host communities. Impact assessments and meaningful consultation with local host communities increase the long-term stability of new business projects, especially in the extractive industries sector. But in countries that punish individuals for expression, affected populations (including local residents, ethnic minorities, and workers) may be unable to voice their concerns. The result is that businesses waste time and money on taking the temperature of local communities, and lose an opportunity to prevent costly future conflicts.

It promotes innovation. Innovation, which has been called the “secret sauce” of business success, drives the growth of individual companies and entire economies. If businesses do not innovate, they fail. But innovation requires diversity of thought and action, as well as high levels of trust. Societies that outlaw and punish free expression destroy societal trust and encourage more uniform, narrow, and rigid forms of thought—the antithesis of innovation.

Leading internet companies have demonstrated their recognition of these benefits, and other business sectors should join them in promoting freedom of expression. They can do so by:

Examining and addressing their own impact on freedom of expression. There are a number of tools that can help businesses assess the impact of their own activities on human rights, including freedom of expression. Based on these assessments, some companies, including Google, Twitter, and Facebook, have developed policies and procedures to increase transparency surrounding government requests that affect freedom of expression on their services. Such transparency reports typically list the number of requests the company has received in each country to take down content or turn over personal data, as well as the number of requests the company has complied with. Further consultation with civil society groups could significantly improve companies’ responses to these requests, particularly in ensuring that any content restrictions comply not just with local laws, but also with international human rights law. Other companies have adopted policies that address their own employees’ right to free expression or prohibit security guards from using force against peaceful demonstrators.

Supporting activists’ efforts to protect freedom of expression. Businesses can openly and directly collaborate with civil society, as Microsoft did in response to the Russian government’s use of antipiracy laws to target dissidents in 2009. Companies may also take a less public approach, as Google did in 2011, when it submitted a confidential memo to Indian regulators expressing opposition to vague new restrictions on internet content. Effective support requires cultivating strong relationships with advocacy groups and seeking out advice on creative, effective ways to address freedom of expression issues.

Leading on freedom of expression issues. In 2012, after Google refused to remove YouTube videos that criticized electoral candidates in Brazil, two executives in the country were arrested. They were released shortly thereafter, but in response, Google defended free speech in a public statement: “Google believes that voters have a right to use the internet to freely express their opinions about candidates for political office, as a form of full exercise of democracy, especially during electoral campaigns.” Corporate leadership does not always need to entail confrontations or arrest. It can be as simple as publicly demonstrating support for freedom of expression and calling on peers to do the same, as the jewelers did in response to the Marques case in Angola. Indeed, companies in a given industry can strengthen their efforts by banding together to uphold international norms, as a group of telecom firms have done through the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue.

The United States and other leading democracies seek to set a global standard for freedom of expression for a combination of moral and strategic reasons. Their corporations can and should do the same.

This post is part of a Freedom at Issue series on the ways in which support for democracy and human rights can improve business conditions.