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.”
Dann also disagrees that a company must comply with the laws of the land. “On what basis should Yahoo, a company not based in China, be forced to comply with Chinese ideology?
According to the UN’s declaration of human rights, most countries believe there is a responsibility not to be complicit with a rogue country’s laws, for example, the Nazis.”
Nor does he buy the argument that U.S. technology companies operating in China are doing more good than harm by being there, and are motivated by a desire to help the Chinese people. “Let’s cut away the bluster. Because of the financial issues at stake, Yahoo and the other companies are ready to out those dissidents. That’s morally reprehensible.”
The American public is sharply divided over the censorship issue, according to a recent survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy and reputation think-tank based in Elk Rapids, Mich.
About 47 per cent of respondents said they believe content companies should not allow such censorship, while 40 per cent believed companies should comply with restrictions.
Moreover, a significant percentage appears to agree with the “ends justifies the means” argument. And 54 per agreed that it is better for the Chinese people to have access to information from Google, Yahoo and MSN, even if they’re subject to government censorship.
“We put that question in our survey because it is an argument that is often raised, but I don’t agree with that position at all. It is a slippery slope that may wind up legitimizing unethical practices,” says Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute. “If you espouse an ethical principle for one country, then apply another one in other countries, that’s unethical practice in my view. You must be morally consistent in order to be moral.”
To whatever extent respondents were willing to bend moral codes to achieve an end, the vast majority also drew lines in the sand. About 77 per cent agreed that compliance with censorship rules does not mean that companies should help identify individuals who access banned content.
Ponemon believes this finding reveals an implicit condemnation of Yahoo, which has provided identifying information to Chinese authorities that has led to jailings.
Google’s position is more nuanced by comparison. The company says it is offering Internet search only in China, and not e-mail, blogging, messaging or other services that might put it in the position of having to provide personally identifiable information to authorities. In addition, the company does not keep any search logs in China, and stores all other information in the U.S.
The Ponemon Institute is conducting another tracking study to determine if technology companies involved in China are suffering losses in reputation and stock value in the wake of the controversy. “The results are not all in yet, but from what I’m seeing thus far, Google is being viewed more favorably than the others, and is perceived as more ethical,” says Ponemon. But he adds that all three have suffered some loss of standing.
The preliminary findings show that people place the two companies’ positions and actions on different moral planes.
“It is one thing to put content filtering in that doesn’t return results for banned search terms, and another when results are provided but in doing so, the user may be revealed to authorities. Ethically, these are two issues and worlds apart in terms of consequences to human beings,” says Ponemon.
He believes people were impressed that Google refused to give up search information subpoenaed by the U.S. Justice Department earlier this year to buttress a defense of a federal Internet pornography law that had been overturned by an appeals court. “While that may not play well with the religious right, it is a consistent position,” he says.
Ponemon believes the censorship debacle is the start of a larger and more important discussion. Decisions made today about the Internet will have far-ranging consequences in the future. Universal tenets are needed because they will truly apply to everyone on the globe, since virtually everyone will be able to access the Web in the near future.
“I don’t think this is about Google or Yahoo, it’s about coming up with a framework for dealing with these issues,” says Ponemon. “Do we want to create universal ethical standards for all the organizations in the technology industry? Is it better to have a version of Google that’s less bad than wh