Google, ethics, and Internet censorship

I originally wrote this post last September as a research paper for my Business Ethics course at Rasmussen College. I decided to post it on my blog now since I still feel strongly about the issues of censorship and online privacy, especially in light of recent leaks about the NSA's top-secret surveillance programs.

What if the websites and other content we want to access online had to first pass through a filter which determines whether or not the content is favorable to the government, and blocks it if it is deemed critical? Sadly, this scenario is currently a part of life in China. All companies and organizations that operate within the country are required to comply with censorship laws and report the activities of citizens to the government. These conditions presented an interesting dilemma for Internet search giant Google, which was forced to choose between cooperating with government censorship laws and letting another company provide search services to the Chinese. While it is important (and ethical) for international companies to adhere to the laws and regulations of nations in which they operate, if those laws come in conflict with greater ethical interests such as human rights or individual freedom it is arguably better to cease operations in the country, rather than assist the government in its suppression of citizens.

“Don’t be evil.” The phrase was supposed to embody Google’s official corporate philosophy. In January of 2006, however, the company launched Google.cn and began censoring search results for Chinese users. How could a company with such a strong corporate culture practice something so seemingly contrary to their principles? The decision was not made lightly. In 2004, Google policy director Andrew McLaughlin was asked to conduct an ethical analysis with the sole purpose of determining whether Google’s presence would “accelerate positive change and freedom of expression in China” (Levy, 2011, p. 277). After nearly a year of research, McLaughlin determined that while “Google’s presence might benefit China,” the experience of working with a totalitarian government would be morally degrading to Google as an organization (p. 279). Google’s approach to this ethical dilemma demonstrated a teleological moral philosophy. In other words, they evaluated the situation based on its consequences – both to the Chinese people and their company.

Although revenue was very specifically not a consideration in McLaughlin’s report, the business prospects of entering China would have been impossible to ignore. With more Internet users than any other country, China presented an unquestionably alluring business growth opportunity. However, cofounder Larry Page remains resolute that the company was only trying to do the right thing for the people of China. “Nobody actually believes this, but we very strongly made these decisions on what we thought were the best interests of humanity and the Chinese people” (Levy, 2011, p. 280). While Page optimistically believed that Google’s services would benefit the Chinese, his partner Sergey Brin was troubled at the prospect of censorship. As a former refugee of the Soviet Union, Brin had personally experienced the burden of a communist government that imposes constraints on personal freedom (p. 274). In the end, however, Brin, Page, and CEO Eric Schmidt weighed the evil of censorship against the evil of not providing any services to the Chinese, and ultimately agreed that censorship was the lesser evil.

But did Google really have no other alternatives? This was not the case. While search may have been the most profitable of Google’s services, it was not their only service. By the time Google.cn was launched, the company already offered email and mapping solutions that were quickly growing in popularity. Additionally, Google could have pursued new business opportunities that would not require censorship (such as music sales or development platforms). While this approach may have changed little from an individual and societal perspective (if Google did not censor search results in China, someone else would), it would at least avoid the organization degradation caused by working with a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, it is also possible that the Chinese people would have more freedom today if Google had never participated in government censorship. During the time Google.cn was operated, the Chinese government progressively tightened Internet censorship requirements. According to human rights activist Peter Guo, China considers Google to be “one of the greatest threats” to the Communist Party (Dean, 2010). If Google had not compromised their principles, the Chinese business market might have looked less attractive to foreign investors, and the government could have been forced to reduce censorship in order to drive innovation.

From a deontological perspective, avoiding censorship at all costs would simply have been the right thing to do, whether it meant pursuing other business models or staying out of the country entirely. Even if unethical behavior is profitable, executives need to consider the kind of world they are helping to create, and whether or not that concerns them (MacKinnon, 2012, p. xxiii). Google could have continued providing unfiltered search results from outside the country, and while the Chinese government would likely block their search engine much of the time, at least it would be the government doing the censoring, rather than Google.

Google stopped providing censored search results in January, 2010, four years after launching Google.cn. Ironically, the incident prompting this decision was a cyberattack, not censorship. Google discovered that the Chinese government was hacking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and stealing their personal data (it’s not hard to guess for what purpose). According to Google co-founder Sergey Brin this was the “straw that broke the camel's back” (Spiegel, 2010).

If there is one lesson that can be learned from Google’s foray into government censorship, it is that compromise is not necessary for corporate success, nor does it improve the lives of citizens. Google hoped that by compromising with the government, the government might eventually compromise with them, but the opposite turned out to be true. While the alternatives to censorship may not be as directly profitable, they can still lead to a net benefit since customers and stakeholders will be more willing to trust and support the company. It is also worth pointing out that if Google was prepared to censor search results for the sake of profit in China, how would they have been prepared to fight similar calls for censorship in the United States (such as the Stop Online Piracy Act)? In the end, I’m glad Google did the right thing by stopping their censorship of Chinese search results. I only wish it hadn’t taken a cyberattack for them to make this decision.

References

Dean, J. (2010, January 13). Ethical Conflicts for Firms in China. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126335402591827235.html

Levy, S. (2011). In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster.

MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. New York: Basic Books.

Spiegel. (2010, March 30). Google Co-Founder on Pulling out of China. Retrieved from Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/google-co-founder-on-pulling-out-of-china-it-was-a-real-step-backward-a-686269.html