Google has faced widespread criticism for its agreement to censor the results of its recently launched China-based search engine on a selection of keywords that the Chinese government deems subversive, such as “democracy” and “China human rights”.
Critics say the company is helping to support a repressive regime by complying with the legislation, and have also condemned Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco for allowing the Chinese government to use their technology to crack down on dissident voices.
At a hearing convened by the US House subcommittee on Africa, global human rights and international operations, Elliott Schrage, Google’s vice president of global communications and public affairs, justified the company’s decision saying that by operating a limited service, it could “accomplish more for Chinese citizens’ access to information” than if it did not provide services there at all. Its US-based service is difficult to access from within China, and is also censored by Chinese internet service providers.
Meanwhile Google has refused to comply with a subpoena from the US Justice Department for it to disclose details of one million web site addresses accessed from its search engine and one week of search queries. Sergey Brin, the website’s founder told Bloomberg that the company is obliged to use the law to the farthest possible means to protect its users’ privacy. “I don’t think we like the precedent of it, and so we’re fighting it”. Contact Ema Linaker, Google 020 7031 3130 www.google.com
In the bigger scheme of things, the rite of passage that Google is currently experiencing over its business decisions in China is little different to that experienced by other high profile MNCs that have invested in the China market. That is, by their very presence in China, they are, to a greater or lesser extent condoning the system and complicit with human rights abuses.
Yet precisely because it has taken such a public stance on ‘doing no evil’ and resisting its own government’s interference makes Google more open to accusations of double standards.China has become the country in which all CSR issues (labour, human rights and environment) collide with great force. Along with the Ciscos and Yahoos of this world, Google has much work to do to re-earn trust in the global community. An industry code of conduct, in which companies commit to making their deals with such regimes transparent, must surely form a central part of this effort.
What has been missing from the debate is how the Chinese themselves view the progression of rights in their country; a better understanding of the complex interplay between culture, law and judiciary where it concerns privacy and access to information. This is not to condone the view that China should be allowed to export its ‘moral relativism’ or to say that the concept of universal human rights does not apply, but to accept that a peasant farmer (of which there are 700 million) might view his/her right or ability to use the internet to check up on grain prices as more valuable than the right to access sites on Falungong or Tiananmen Square.
It iss also worth bearing in mind that the Chinese government itself is by no means a monolithic non-porous block of resistance and paranoia. Views differ on how to take China to the next stage of development – between those wishing to resort to tried and tested methods of political control , and more progressive elements who believe that affording its people greater freedoms is the solution. The challenge for international governments, businesses and NGOs will be to tap into and understand the latter.
Liza Lort Philips – The Corporate Citizenship Company