Technology and Democracy

In the last two weeks much has been said about the actions of Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft in China that are apparently aiding the Chinese government in repressing dissent. In the congressional hearing Congressmen, playing to the galleries, subjected representatives from the four companies to some pretty intense questioning. When politicians ask questions in a public hearing that is being televised they are more interested in making political statements and less in the companies’ answers to the questions. Rhetorical questions like ‘how can you sleep at night?’ which was one of the questions, can be translated as ‘Voters in my constituency, I am concerned about freedom of speech around the world, an American value that I know is dear to you.’

The American press, in general, has found the companies to be at fault. This is not surprising given that the media is the biggest commercial beneficiary of free speech. You’d expect them to be less balanced about something that threatens their raison d’être.

So are the four technology companies at fault for aiding the Chinese government curtail freedom of speech? I think this is a complex issue that does not lend itself to a snap judgment. What the four tech giants were doing was obeying the law – the Chinese law. Not complying with China’s law, would have harmed their business interests in China and perhaps the well-being of the company’s senior officials in China. It was lawful and pragmatic. Is that so bad?

It could be. A company’s management often faces choices that may be all legal, but are not all equally ethical. Some of those choices may violate the stated values of the company. In a rapidly evolving industry sometimes the laws have not ‘caught up’ with the state of evolution of the industry. In such cases, very often the industry will come up with self-regulatory mechanisms. For instance, in the early days of the e-commerce boom, customer data privacy was a big issue that was first tackled through self-regulatory mechanisms before laws could be enacted. E-mail spam went through the same cycle. In these cases, ‘good’ business behavior emerged before the governing laws were framed. Similarly, some commentators say that American businesses adopted a self-imposed economic boycott of South Africa in the days of the apartheid. This was well before the US government and the UN mandated a boycott.

China, however, is not South Africa. The stakes are much higher. We are talking about a country that will soon become the second largest economy in the world. I can just picture the management of Google on an investor conference call saying that they had decided to pull out of China because complying with Chinese laws on censorship would put them in conflict with one of Google’s values (‘Don’t be evil’?). It would be ugly. Guaranteed.

Then there’s the question – is what they are doing really ‘evil’? If so, how evil? On a scale of 1 to 10 where would you put Yahoo aiding the Chinese government in identifying Falun Gong web-site owners? On that same scale, where would you put the US government asking Google to hand over usage data related to terrorist like activities (I guess they want to know about anyone searching for ‘build a nuclear bomb in your garage’)? How about if the US government asked Google to hand over search phrases and click-stream data on suspected terrorists? To Google’s credit they have staunchly refused to do this. The matter is now in the courts.

Obeying the laws of a country is has binary states. You either do or you don’t. Being ethically or morally right is not binary. There are vast grey areas. And when the stakes are high like they are in China and you are managing a publicly listed company it is not easy to take the high ground.

What could make it a lot easier is if the US government stepped in and made some rules here. Like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, maybe there should be a Foreign Abetting Repression Act which prohibits American companies from collaborating with repressive governments. I see serious implementation problems here, but that’s what Congressmen are good at – legislating on complex matters. Such a law would make it a level playing field, so Yahoo wouldn’t have to worry that if they took the high ground in China, Google would eat their lunch. These four companies are great companies and I’m sure that given the chance they would do the right thing.

After all, the softest pillow is a clear conscience.

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