Should Search Engines Be Doing Business In China?

Add Your Comments

Google’s often-cited philosophy is to not do evil while carrying out its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” With such lofty ethics, it came as a surprise when the search engine that so many of us trusted to neutrally parcel the Internet launched Google.cn on Chinese soil in 2006.

As part of the arrangement to break ground in the Communist nation, Google had to agree to a substantially censored version of its search results to appease Chinese law. In the Official Google Blog, the company defended its decision:

“Our launch of Google.cn, though filtered, is a necessary first step toward achieving a productive presence in a rapidly changing country that will be one of the world’s most important and dynamic for decades to come. To some people, a hard compromise may not feel as satisfying as a withdrawal on principle, but we believe it’s the best way to work toward the results we all desire” (January 27, 2006).

This is an extremely well-written argument for profit (“a productive presence”). Since I am a devout capitalist, I understand the reasoning completely; even without the weight of a publicly run company on my shoulders. That said, I have to wonder if Google’s actions may be seen as support for China’s policies, by changing its search results to support an Orwellian regime fraught with accusations of human rights violations.

To give you some background on China’s questionable ethics, here are the details of a few incidents:

  • In December 2006, the Committee to Protect Journalists declared that, “for the eighth consecutive year, China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 31 imprisoned. About three-quarters of the cases in China were brought under vague “antistate” laws; 19 cases involve Internet journalists.”
  • In 2004, Yahoo! provided confidential user information to Chinese authorities that may have played a significant part in the sentence of 10 years imprisonment handed out to journalist Shi Tao for “leaking state secrets to a foreign website.” Oddly, however, “Chinese journalists say the information that Mr. Shi … provided to the New York Web site, called Democracy Forum, was already widely circulated. It involved routine instructions on how officials must safeguard social stability during the 15th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, democracy movement” (New York Times, September 8, 2005).
  • “On November 21, 2008, authorities in Beijing’s Xicheng District used a bulldozer to demolish the home of rights defense activist Ni Yulan, who has been in detention since April 2008 without a trial. Her husband, Dong Jiqin, has been made homeless and has been sleeping in a train station in Beijing since the forced demolition” (Human Rights in China website, November 24, 2008).

Note: This is only a taste of the injustices the People’s Republic of China has been accused of; visit www.hrichina.org for up-to-date news and archives of the appalling human rights violations occurring in China.

Despite China’s questionable legal system, the booming Chinese economy has proven too tempting for much of corporate America. According to Amnesty International’s 2002 “State Control of the Internet in China,” companies such as Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Websense, and Sun Microsystems have all reportedly provided the very technology used to censor the Internet in China. This is not to mention Microsoft and Yahoo!’s substantially censored search presence in China itself that has made headlines over the past few years, Yahoo!’s privacy violation of Shi Tao’s email account, and Microsoft’s removal of a controversial political blog from MSN Spaces. In addition, Microsoft has admitted to blocking content with headlines involving “human rights” and “democracy.”

So this all begs the question — should companies have a presence in a market that is undeniably massive and lucrative yet equally subversive and foreign to the very principles they claim to hold dear? Amnesty International’s 2004 report entitled “Undermining Freedom of Expression in China” deftly answered this delicate question in the following passage:

“While companies are under continuous pressure from shareholders to maximise their profits and can be expected to have a presence in lucrative markets, this does not absolve them from their human rights responsibilities.”

The statement does not mean that companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! cannot do business in China — that is financially unrealistic. Instead, Amnesty International outlined a number of recommendations for companies to follow, including:

  • Adopt firm human rights policies about what they are and are not willing to be a party to. When pressure is applied, “exhaust all judicial remedies and appeals in China and internationally before complying with state directives.”
  • Be as transparent as possible about how the service they are providing has been censored.
  • Play a major role in promoting human rights in China and lobby for the release of human rights activists unjustly imprisoned.
  • Publicly present all agreements between the company and the Chinese government pertaining to censorship.

These points raise the question — have any of the search companies made an attempt to follow Amnesty International’s recommendations? Yes, sort of. Google actually has earned praise for transparently identifying any search result that has been censored along with the keywords that triggered the censorship.

But what about Yahoo! and Microsoft? Have they made any effort to be transparent? As far as I can tell, neither company has chosen to outline which results have been censored. In fact, I can’t even give them a mark for effort because as far as Joe Public is concerned, they haven’t even tried.

In conclusion, although I don’t like it, I realize it is foolhardy to expect the big three search companies to stay out of China, where one-fifth of the world’s population resides. That said, it is unconscionable for a company from a free society to simply go with the flow in an oppressive regime like the People’s Republic of China. As a citizen who respects and holds dear free speech and other basic human rights, I expect that at the very least that search companies should use their influence to publicly question and embattle any attempt at censorship.

By all means, do business in China, but don’t roll over and use the tired line “we must respect the laws of the countries we do business in.” Any law violating human rights deserves no respect — companies should not make it easy for those laws to exist. The search engines should fight such laws from the inside and be 100% transparent whenever they are forced to follow them to continue doing business in countries like China.

About the Author

Ross Dunn is CEO of StepForth Web Marketing, Inc., a respected leader for 13 years in providing SEO, research, and consultation services. Contact him at ceo@stepforth.com or visit www.stepforth.com. Read more at news.stepforth.com.

Add Your Comments

  • (will not be published)