Google, Yahoo and Censorship

Yahoo’s shareholders have joined Google’s in rejecting an anti-censorship proposal.  The ethical implications of this are immediately clear.  What may be less clear is the message this is sending to corporate America, specifically to the internet and communications giants.  From Slashdot:

Matthew Skala writes “The BBC reports that Yahoo! has rejected a shareholder proposal to adopt an anti-censorship policy, as well as one to set up a human rights committee to review the impact of Yahoo!’s operations in places like China. The interesting proposals are numbers 6 and 7 in the proxy statement available through EDGAR. This news comes on the heels of jailed Chinese reporter Shi Tao, suing Yahoo! for its involvement in his conviction, and Google’s rejection of a similar proposal. The anti-censorship proposal was submitted by the same groups (several New York City pension funds) as the Google proposal. The proxy statement also includes the Board’s recommendations — “strongly oppose[ing]” both proposals — with explanations of their reasoning.”

From the BBC article, you have two explanations for why these firms insist on sticking with censorship:

But Yahoo insists it must comply with local laws in areas where it operates.

The internet firms argue it is better to offer Chinese users some information than none at all.

The first explanation is the most telling.  It is less a reason, more an excuse.  If Yahoo had been around during nazi Germany’s reign, would they have complied with their “local laws”?  What happens when one of the dissidents Yahoo turns over is tortured and killed by the Chinese government?  At some point one must draw a distinction between the nearly holy perceived authority of written law and the actual justice of said law.  Civil disobedience isn’t a radical act limited to protesters.  It is a fundamental responsibility of all citizens to oppose unjust laws.

The second explanation is somewhat in line with US trade policy towards China in general.  The idea is that human rights and freedom will go along with our increased economic activity.  The problem with this is censorship severely limiting the positive effects of trade.  If Google or Yahoo were to pull their services, the Chinese would notice.  If the biggest search engines in the world no longer worked, how would that make the government look?

How genuine  is this argument anyway?  Is letting a Chinese user use google to find a state approved news article on why Taiwan might need to be invaded worth getting a dissident thrown in jail and possibly tortured for expressing his political opinion?

Also the policy of not revealing censored sites says a lot about the companies:

Neither Yahoo nor any other company has released a list of websites that have been de-listed for their political and religious content.

If they did, that would provide powerful evidence against the motives and effects of the Chinese government’s actions.  It would also serve to let the censored sites in on their own prohibition.

By continuing to support censorship, Yahoo and Google are doing more than supporting a repressive regime.  They are sending the message to other corporations that this is how companies should act with regard to human rights.

The arguments put forth by the companies ring hollow, and what we are left with is corporations that do not want to see lose a major market, and are willing to compromise the spirit of the laws of the countries for profit.  It puts that desire for profit above the human rights of the communities served.

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7 Responses

  1. The bigger a company gets, the more willing they become to carry out the government’s dirty bidding.

  2. And isn’t that strange…it would seem that as a company gets bigger it would have more leeway to act against dirty governments. Seriously, the post says it pretty straightforwardly but, it bears some repeating. If Google and Yahoo confronted the Chinese government in tandem, if China’s internet shut down (basically) the Chinese people might increase their pressure for civil rights and liberties. As a matter of fact, why not even direct the Chinese to a page that actually says:

    “Thank you for attempting to use the world of services provided by XXX (google or yahoo). Unfortunately your government asked us to restrict what you could find through our portal. As firm believers in freedom of choice–in action, thought, and deed–we could not succumb to that request. We do not do this to punish the Chinese people but to force your government to treat you with basic human dignity. We do this to force your government to accept that fact that as a thoughtful and loyal people you should be allowed access to the knowledge that will help you become self-realized individuals. Good luck in your struggle.”

  3. Oops, sorry. here’s the YT vid:

  4. 1. Chris, some small companies really dig it too. I think it is purely a question of whether or not their business interests intersect with the government’s desire to opress. The potential for that intersection can grow with the size of a company, but not neccisarily so.

    2. Jim, That page would be blocked by the great firewall.
    But not before a few people saw it.
    They could absolutely exert pressure on the Chinese government.
    It says a lot that they don’t.

    3. Mirth, and google recieved some bad press of late for their privacy practices. Being evil is bad PR.

  5. It’s true, it wouldn’t last long, but I imagine a few people would get a chance to mirror…the web savvy are tricky bunch.

  6. 6. Jim,
    A most excellent point!
    Plus U Toronto’s Citizen Lab has some good things cooking.

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