Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Morality of Doing Business in China

Over at Dean's World, Scott Kirwin has a great post about Google's decision to allow censorship of its content in China.

Google likes to think it's different from other companies. It has a liberal, Dotcom culture that is known throughout the industry. Google's founders are Left-wing, and the company spends lavishly on Left-wing causes. It is currently standing up to the US government, for example, refusing to release 1 weeks' collection of Search Terms. Google's principled position even earned it praise from many Libertarians.

But then the old Chinese Dream arises... And Google makes a deal to appease the real imperialists (in Tibet and threats to Taiwan) and real butchers (Tiananmen as well as recent riots in villages).

Free Tibet? Tiananmen Massacre? Sorry, this content is being blocked by devout Running Dog capitalists who have made a deal with the Butchers of Beijing.

Corporations are amoral. And the bigger the company, the easier it is for them to make choices that go against our better values. But there is room for condemnation of a company that refuses to allow its own government a glimpse of user search terms but has no problem letting a foreign government broadly censor content.

For Google, money apparently trumps values.

Then again, giving the Chinese people greater access to the Internet (even a censored one) can only lead to a broadening of knowledge. And knowledge is an important stepping stone on the path to freedom. But somehow I doubt that was Google's motivation.


Blogger Ted Carmichael said...

Hi, Alan ... good to see you back.

I'm not exactly taking a counter-position here, but there are one or two things I would like to comment on.

First of all, let me point out that I have a pretty healthy libertarian streak. I wholeheartedly defend not only our constitutional rights, but also the idea that the constitution is intended to be a numeration of the government's power, rather than a short list of things it can't do. "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people," and all that.

We have a strong tradition in this country of championing the rights of the individual. But we - and here's the part that may get me in trouble - we are not the Chinese, and the Chinese are not us. I'm not suggesting that Chinese citizens don't deserve the same protections and freedoms that we enjoy; rather, I'm suggesting that the Chinese simply do not value those rights and freedoms to the same degree.

I studied abroad in China for a semester when I was in school, and the most surprising thing I found was this difference in attitude and tradition from what I was used to. While we value the individual, and put up with the requisite loss of a "little security," the Chinese, instead, give greater weight to the value of the community. They champion one's responsibility to society, and they hold a greater willingness to submit the needs of the few for the needs of the many than we ever have in this country.

Now, it is an interesting question as to whether this distinctly different mindset is a product of their form of government, or whether their form of government is a product of a different mindset. I believe, from what little I know of their culture over the last millennium or two, that the latter is actually more likely.

Of course, it's a sort of "chicken or the egg" debate that has no easy answer, as the two separate forces are hopelessly intertwined. Nevertheless, one must be cautious when assuming our deeply held values are equally held by another culture.

I cannot condone all the actions of what is, in many cases, a repressive regime in China. But neither can I automatically condemn it. "American style" democracy scares the Chinese, as does the violence in our midst that they link to our many freedoms. They have great difficulty in understanding our reticence to disrupt the privacy of a few for the security and stability of the many.

What does this all have to do with Google? Well, for one, it may indicate that Google - far from "trumping" money over values - may, in fact, have a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and tradition than we give them credit for. It may be that Google is adhering to the values of the Chinese people as much as they are fighting for our rights here at home.

In other words, it may be the case that the Chinese have pretty much exactly the type of government that they want. And Google, I believe, is respecting that wish, rather than trying to force our freedom from censorship on an unwilling populace.

Just some food for thought. Cheers.

2:57 AM  

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