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Summary:

[qi:076] Today is Diwali, one of the holiest days on the Hindu calendar, one that has transcended religious barriers because it celebrates the victory of good over evil. It is therefore appropriate that today is when the news is emerging that large Internet companies — Google, […]

[qi:076] Today is Diwali, one of the holiest days on the Hindu calendar, one that has transcended religious barriers because it celebrates the victory of good over evil. It is therefore appropriate that today is when the news is emerging that large Internet companies — Google, Microsoft and Yahoo — are teaming up with human rights groups and other organizations to set up a Global Network Initiative that will help “avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression.” The effort is a resistance against draconian impositions by the likes of Chinese government.

This is an important first step in providing standards for free expression and privacy that obligate companies to do more to challenge government restrictions…It sets up an accountability mechanism that will allow each of the companies to be evaluated over time.
— Michael Posner, president of Human Rights First, as quoted in The New York Times

I am a little bemused by the positive spin around today’s news, for it tries to disguise the past misdoings of these Internet giants. The hypocrisy of their actions speak louder than their words. All three companies — Google, Yahoo and Microsoft — have cooperated with the Chinese government in the past, given up information that has led to human right violations of certain people. In India, a division of Google accepts advertising from companies that sell services related to what is essentially gender-based infanticide. Is that less evil than privacy violations or suppression of speech? This selective approach to doing the right thing is one of the reasons why all of them get an F (for failed.)

While I laud the efforts of all these companies, the big question I have for them is: Why do they need to act as a group to do the right thing? If protecting privacy and freedom of speech are so important to these companies, then why are they actually doing business in places like China? Why not take a more individualistic moral stand and stop doing business in China (or any other place that routinely violates human rights) and show the world that your principles demand you to forego current and future profits? The answer, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, is that “Money, not morality, is the principle of commerce and commercial nations.”

Growing up, my parents explained to me that doing the right thing is the only option — regardless of consequences and situations. They said that sometimes it is the hardest thing to do because you are all by yourself. John F. Kennedy put it more eloquently when he said,  “A man does what he must-in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures-and that is the basis of all human morality.” These Internet giants might want to remember that.

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  1. Om —

    While I can understand your general sentiment here, I do have to take issue with your example that you give, the case of ‘foeticide’ in India. It seems to me that you are asking these companies to make more active moral decisions than it may be their job to make.

    In the example you give, the Indian government has decided a stance that essentially says “you cannot abort a fetus based on gender”. This is, from what I’ve read, now legal doctrine in India. Fair enough, it’s the law, but it is hardly a settled question about what the ‘right’ moral stance is here. The abortion debate is VERY muddled, and it could just as easily be argued that the Indian government themselves are overstepping their bounds by forcing women to make (or not make, in this case) decisions about their own bodies. This is the crux of the debate, and not one that is easily solved through simple legislation (as the U.S. itself has shown time and again).

    But how does Google then decide what is right and wrong here? For example, abortion is legal in the United States under Roe v. Wade — but many people see it as ‘wrong’ regardless of it’s legal status. Which direction should Google take? Should they decide to allow advertisements from abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood, on the grounds that the law permits that? Or should they take a stance and ban those advertisements on their own judgment of what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘wrong’?

    There is a clear disconnect here — on the one hand, we are asking Google/Yahoo/Microsoft to make moral decisions DESPITE the law (in the case of the Chinese government), and on the other hand we are asking Google/Yahoo/Microsoft to make moral decisions in RESPECT of the law (in the case you cite).

    I think in the end it’s pointless for us to expect large companies like Google/Microsoft/Yahoo to make moral decisions at all. Is it wrong for China to imprison it’s citizens and squash free speech? I’d argue yes, and I think most people would. But by the same token, Arabic countries would think it’s outrageously immoral that Google would include porn in it’s search engine results at all.

    I’m not trying to argue for complete relativism in morality here, but I DO think that it’s not as simple as you make it out to be. Many of the questions asked here, and the expectations put on Google and the like, are complex enough that governments, individuals, etc have been discussing them for centuries without clear answers — asking these companies to make arbitrary decisions in the middle of such a mess seems arrogant, in that you are simply espousing Western viewpoints as moral truths.

    If you and a million other like-minded individuals think that it’s wrong for Google/Yahoo/Microsoft to be involved in the market in China, then stop using their services. In the end, the fact that these companies are based on profit is a GOOD thing — because those profits come from customers and end users, and if enough customers and end users start jumping ship, then these corporations will move elsewhere, to less troubled waters, in search of profit. Because they are profit driven, we the people who use them can hold them accountable — much more so then they can or should hold themselves in some arbitrary manner.

    Respectfully,

    rhyddid

  2. Jesse Kopelman Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Glad to see you bring this up again, Om. Sadly this is a subject that gets far too little mainstream discussion. The current global economic crisis is perfect proof that the concept of amoral (maybe immoral is more accurate) business is doomed to failure and such failure has broader consequence.

  3. Stacey Higginbotham Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Om, not that I am in favor of these companies’ support of human rights violations, but as users of said technology aren’t we complicit as well? Also, shareholders in these firms could also decide to ditch those assets en masse, and perhaps affect change.

    Many people defend their lack of interest and engagement in such violations by asserting that they are too insignificant to make a difference. I too, find it overwhelming, but in an increasingly interconnected world it is hard for an individual to keep hiding their head in the sand and hold businesses solely to blame.

    A bigger issue is that as more of the world participates in the global economy, we are encountering different cultures and have to engage with folks who may not share our morals and mores. These are hard issues, but I’m glad we’re thinking about them.

  4. @rhyddid

    I have to admit, that is one of the most eloquent comments I have seen on the site since we have been around, and it very appropriately points out the dichotomy of the situation.

    My contention with this post is that these issues are complex and not easy to handle. if corporations are going to make moral decisions then they need to be consistent in making them – on an individual basis. I think it is a problem all of us grapple with on a daily basis and as individuals we find it easy to respond/react to situations.

  5. @Jesse Kopelman

    I agree with you on the whole issue of current global crisis. it is the amorality of a few that is the cause of the current problems, though everyone is equally complicit for had it not been unchecked greed in our hearts, the situation wouldn’t have gotten this out of control.

    To some extent I feel that the whole capitalistic system needs to come to term with the fact that because it is successful, it has responsibility – responsibility to do the right thing and yet let the market forces play their course.

  6. Om,

    I hate to get political here, but if one continues your line of argument, companies like Google should just relocate to Switzerland. The last time I checked, illegal wiretapping of citizens, holding people while denying them habeas corpus rights, not to mention violation of sovereignty of other nations, are all human rights abuses, under both international and American law. I am not trying to compare US with China here but this is all a matter of degree and perception. Our government is just as guilty of human rights violations as any others. Should we stop doing business altogether?

  7. Om — thank you for your praise, I appreciate it! I very much agree that these decisions do not warrant a “committee” — after all, how many “great” things have been accomplished through decision by committee. I personally rather like the aesthetic of the idea that Google and Microsoft and Yahoo would each make their own decisions, based on their own corporate culture and governance, and thus handle the perceived rights abuses in ways that they see fit. That gives us, the end users (and as Stacey mentioned, share-holders), leeway to act similarly. I also think that there is GOOD to be had by users, even in somewhere as ideologically restricted as China, to have these services available. The balance, like all things, has to be found in between, by those that recognize the value and equally the danger (I’d submit a site like http://www.scroogle.org/ as a good example of using a service, while recognizing it’s dangers).

    While one person or group of persons might choose to stop supporting Google for putting up the ads you mention in India in defiance of the government, another group might choose to support them based on the ideas of freedom for individuals from government intervention. While people might argue that this would leave us locked in some kind of moral stasis, I tend to think that this kind of give and take, and (hopefully respectful) disagreement is what gets everyone to where they need to be: moving towards a balance that takes into account both personal freedom and responsibility.

    Very interesting discussion, and I applaud you for bringing it up!

    Respectfully,

    rhyddid

  8. David Mullings Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Andruha is quite right Om. “He who has not sinned should cast the first stone”.

    The USA is guiltier than many other countries if we look at the history of US foreign policy n the 20th century and its impact on developing nations. If you go back further, you get into slavery and China today is nothing compared to that monstrosity. I have yet to see the USA pay for its past violations.

    Capitalism seems to have no conscience and that is the problem. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the odds ones out, not the average ones.

    You are quite right that companies are not amoral because their own business practices indicate morality – for example, choosing to grow your bananas in a country with essentially slave labour.

    If we as citizens began to choose which companies to do business with based on morality, we would be eating a lot less food, buying a whole lot less shoes and living quite differently than we do today.

    I agree that this is nothing but a marketing ploy and rings very very hollow.

  9. @Andruha and @David Mullings

    I am not the one to disagree with your point of view, but then I have my own and my individual sense of right or wrong. So perhaps that is why the post is written the way it is.

    On the issue of who is guiltier than the other, it is again a question of perspective. And perhaps that is why we all should pay heed to words of JFK, for we can control and define our individual morality.

    Lastly, writing this post was a risk – for politics and religion are not a spectator sport – but your reactions and responses have provided a much needed lift today. They remind me why I do what I do! Thanks for sharing your time and thoughts.

  10. Which bring us to the very practice of making ‘compromises’- that gray area between black and white that is very much a personal dilemma as it is more outward and pronounced in groups.

    Personally, I don’t expect anyone to agree or follow the choices that I make and for the better part, this has given me the freedom to pursue ideals notwithstanding the hurt I may have inadvertently caused loved ones.

    It has and will always be a question of personal/internal choices, Om, whether it’s morality, motivation and whatever else.

    And with regards to that triumvirate, they may not be all perfect but I’d give them credit (whatever their motives). Besides, they can only take baby steps (just imagine them companies as persons who tie themselves in bunches and making them walk – difficult).

    Best.
    alain

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