COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE
Business ethics for technology companies operating in countries with repressive regimes are not clear cut.
Yahoo has released user identities to Chinese authorities that have led to the jailing of dissidents; Google censors results in its China search engine; Microsoft has removed blogs written by Chinese journalists in MSN Spaces; and Cisco helps the Chinese government block access to Web sites by selling it network management gear.
While Canada has been spared such incidents – so far at least – industry observers here have different perspectives on the role of censorship and the position that IT companies should adopt on this issue.
As a general policy, companies have to obey the laws of the land, says Bernard Courtois, president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), an Ottawa-based industry association for the IT sector. "If countries have laws that censor information, technology companies don't generally drive that. They aren't there to impose one culture on another."
Courtois says the more people have access to technology, the more likely is the development of an advanced economy. Attempts by governments to police a global medium such as the Internet are unlikely to succeed in any case, he says. "Industry insiders know you can't keep people out entirely. Whatever we contribute helps improve these societies, but change for more open access to information will have to come from within."
In Courtois' view, censorship is not on the same moral plane as the human rights issues. "If a government censors Web sites – and everyone wonders how really effective that is – it's a far cry from people being tortured and killed."
Those actions, he said, would be considered crimes by anyone, and are clearly violations of international human rights that supersede a country's laws, he says. "If companies are helping build torture chambers, then they are implicated. But if they're building a telecom infrastructure, they are not implicated at all."
He says he sympathizes with companies such as Google, as they face a difficult dilemma. "They are helping the Chinese people but they must go through the necessary evil of complying with the government. You want to be part of an effort that promotes development that will eventually force a more open system, but in the meantime, if you put access to the Web in people's hands, they will find a way."
But Gary Elijah Dann, who teaches business ethics and philosophy courses at the University of Toronto, disagrees with the logic of that position, pointing out that the idea at the core is the ends justifies the means.
"Most people are apprehensive about sacrificing the lives of innocent people for an end that isn't even necessary," he says. "Here, there's some undefined good that may be realized if we give up 50 people jailed for posting dissident views. That kind of moral reasoning is questionable whether you're stealing chocolate bars for the homeless guy outside, or a Yahoo pretending to do it for the greater good of the Chinese people."