Ethics at Work: Standing behind the Great Firewall of China

Google shareholders affirm censorship status quo.

asher meir 88 (photo credit: )
asher meir 88
(photo credit: )
Earlier this week, Google shareholders defeated a shareholder proposal to stop the company from cooperating with censorship requests from host governments. In the past, Google has complied with laws in various countries limiting what kind of search results can be displayed. The most far-reaching and detailed restrictions are those imposed by China; the Internet restrictions in that country are sometimes called "The Great Firewall of China." Google Corporation's main product is its Internet search service, which is by far the most popular in the world. According to most rankings, Google processes the majority of web searches in the world - more than Yahoo, MSN, AOL and all the others put together. Since Google sells knowledge and knowledge is power, it is only natural that various governments have an interest in restricting what people can find on the Internet. The list of Google censorship restrictions constitutes a window into the particular sensitivities of various societies. In the US, the most publicized issue is property rights. Google may restrict access to sites if it receives a complaint that these sites infringe intellectual property rights; this policy protects Google itself against lawsuits. In Germany and France, hate speech is illegal and Google cooperates with this policy by eliminating links to Nazi and neo-Nazi sites. China has an authoritarian regime much concerned about political upheaval, and authorities demanded that Google China "filter" certain search terms, making it difficult to find information on the Tiananmen Square demonstration or on controversial movements such as Taiwanese independence. This became the most controversial censorship step for a variety of reasons. One is that the censorship had the most salient political motivation; another is that Google's policy was the outcome of negotiations and not of compliance with a specific law. In response, Google's management was faced with a shareholder initiative trying to force the company to do more to resist censorship. Such "socially based" shareholder initiatives have become more and more popular since the 1960s, when divestment from South Africa was proposed in shareholder initiatives in a number of major companies. The Google initiative had two particularly interesting features: 1) The sponsor was not an NGO but rather the New York City pension funds. This is an interesting twist. Pension funds have helped revolutionize corporate democracy because they have huge resources and thus palpable leverage on management. But these funds have typically focused on governance issues that affect the bottom line - issues like executive pay, response to takeovers, control over the board, etc. "Social responsibility" initiatives are more commonly associated with NGOs and other groups with a more overtly political orientation. 2) The proposal was actually quite tame, suggesting that the proposers actually thought it had a chance. After all, if you're only grandstanding anyway you might as well suggest something provocative. The proposal really restricted only self-censorship (as in China), and did not call on Google to refuse to do business in places where censorship is required by law. The other main provision is that searchers should be informed when their search results have been censored. (A much more important provision is that identifying details not be stored in the censoring host company, to protect users, but my understanding is that Google does this already.) The proposal was opposed by Google management. Business considerations obviously played a role, but social responsibility was also cited. The company's position is that ultimately Google immensely increases access to information in the world's most populous country, and that resisting relatively minor censorship requests would be counterproductive in the fight for human rights in China. Similar responses were made to divestment proposals, as affected companies claimed, generally accurately, that their presence in South Africa created excellent job opportunities for blacks, thus contributing to substantive equality in the apartheid regime. I am happy to see that the pension funds are taking an interest in human rights and not just in the bottom line. This is an important ethical development, though a dangerous one as it opens the door for divisive and counterproductive political wrangling among the pension holders. I would like to see a balance created, by very restrictive conditions on the ability of pension fund managers to propose "social responsibility" amendments, to ensure that they truly reflect the views of a vast majority of covered employees. Another important element is the moderate and practical tone of the proposal itself. Ultimately, however, I think that Google management is correct on this score. Google is the key to Internet access, and the minor restrictions imposed by the Chinese government are a small price to pay for the immense empowerment provided by Google access. Here's another consideration: the "Great Firewall of China" is probably even less effective at keeping out foreign ideas at bay than the bricks-and-mortar wall was at keeping out Mongol invaders. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.