China is renowned for keeping its citizens in the dark. They censor their television shows and ads. Now time travel, homosexuality, and luxurious lifestyle programs are banned from Chinese television (Time.com). They sensor Internet chat rooms to deter the conversations from issues like politics “towards [issues] such as which celebrities make the best role models.” The government even goes so far as to set up fake websites designed at luring in “would-be dissidents” for their “apprehension” (Dann and Haddow, p. 220).
The first question that needs answering is as follows: is the free flow of information a human right? Back before the Internet, how much access to information we had depended on both our monetary wealth and status in society. If we truly want a liquid society, where serfs can become kings, free flow of information should be of the utmost importance. Information is power.
By definition, markets cannot be efficient if information becomes scarce or censored. Those in power can use information to further sway those under their control; even in a democracy, controlling the information can make the electorate vote in a way that seems in their best interest but really they’re being influenced by the censored distribution of information. Without the freedom to distribute information, a democracy by name cannot be a democracy in practice.
The censorship in China is done by government entities to exert “paternalistic influence” over the population politically. Chinese economic freedom has evolved massively since the days of strict Communist rule (Dann and Haddow, p. 220). This economic freedom has allowed companies like Yahoo and Google to establish a presence in the formerly closed state. In order to do business within the Communist nation, however, foreign companies must comply with Chinese law. When law conflicts with a firm’s moral compass, which should have precedence?
Google complies with Chinese law and omits certain things from search results inquired within China. Before the establishment of Google.cn, every search inquiry had to pass through the “’the Great Firewall of China’” (Dann and Haddow, p. 221). This caused searches to take longer, thus less use of Google’s platform. Google set up a search database within China that already had politically undesirable items removed. This made the search engine faster and more accessible for many.
Hypothetically assume Google refuses service within China. Tech firms that are willing to swallow their moral obligation to society in favor of profit will step in and fill the void. A Chinese competitor, Baidu, soared from “2.5% market share in 2003 to 43% in 2005” (Dann and Haddow, p. 225). Google won’t solve anything by refusing service, except perhaps to exacerbate the problem. The search database will shrink, allowing less free flow of information.
Dann and Haddow argue Google produced a list of blocked items on its own, without “receiving direct orders from Beijing” (p. 226). By Dann and Haddow’s calculation, Google censored information without being directly ordered. Google was losing market share, and thus needed to revise their strategy. Dann and Haddow call this process an “outsource of censorship” by the Chinese government (p.226).
Yahoo!, an internet search engine and news site, allows its content to be censored in China as well. In Dann and Haddow’s research paper Yahoo is cited for aiding in the arrest of a citizen who “was sentenced to eight years in prison for posting comments that criticized government ofﬁcials of corruption” (p. 229). Yahoo, like Google, asserted it had little to no choice in the matter, as it had to play by the rules in order to play the game.
Should Yahoo have sacrificed its Chinese branch in order to maintain its values? When does morality trump profitability in the business world? The answer can be easy when answering for the self, but harder when those affected have no skin in the game. American investors in Yahoo wish to see the company grow more profitable, period. Perhaps by sacrificing their Chinese branches, they can improve public image and gain market share… but perhaps not.
Yahoo can also assert that it was the responsibility of the individual involved to protect himself (or herself). If the individual hadn’t dissented against the government, there would be no wrongdoing and the individual would still be free today. Yahoo is merely providing the platform for conversation; they didn’t guide or start the discussion. Had Yahoo been actively endorsing the actions of the individual, they would be liable by Chinese law. Is it Yahoo’s responsibility to protect the users of its platform? If a controversial note was posted on a firm’s notice board, should the person who installed the corkboard be faulted or the individual who posted the note?
This turns the discussion to one of free speech rather than free flow of information. “It is the ability to exchange information that is valuable, not necessarily the worth of the information itself” (Dann and Haddow, p. 222). They argue it is the installer of the corkboard (from my example above) who is responsible for preserving the integrity of the information posted. Free flow of information is imperative to a democratic society. Uninhibited, unbiased news and information needs to be present in a truly free society.
Google and Yahoo’s responsibly to Chinese citizens can be argued from both points of view. On one hand, Yahoo and Google must follow the rules to play the game. If they want to utilize and operate in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, they need to follow Chinese law.
On the other hand, they are actively participating in inhibiting the democratic process. The United States’ military has fought against the spread of Communism in several wars and hundreds of thousands had died to spread democratic ideals. Meanwhile, Google and Yahoo are assisting in the process of politically influencing entire generations of Chinese citizens.
Thanks for reading.
- Dann, G.E. and Haddow, N., Journal of Business Ethics (2008). Retrieved: Sept. 2016