Google recently announced that it will launch a version of its search engine in China that will block internet sites that the Chinese government finds objectionable. In doing so, they are following the lead of Microsoft and Yahoo, whose web browsers are already operating in that country.
Google is following the lead of Microsoft and Yahoo in another area. In order to establish their business, they have agreed to censor certain web sites. This censorship involves everybody's access to information about Taiwanese independence, the Tienneman Square massacre, and other political issues about which the Chinese government does not want its citizens to able to make informed decisions.
These companies have come under criticism for these moves. Critics contend that these companies should flex their corporate muscles and force the Chinese government to end this censorship by threatening not to participate in the Chinese market until their demands are met.
Some, such as Reporters Without Borders http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=16262 also argue that these companies are hypocritical in opposing government restrictions in this country while accepting restrictions in China.
To the best of my ability to determine, neither charge actually sticks.
What principles should we follow in determining whether a company may permissibly do business in a particular country?
Doing Business in America
Note that we now live under a government with squads that go around pulling people off the street, imprisoning them without charges or a trial, and torturing them sometimes to death. One such squad is under indictment in Italy for removing people from that country.
We now live in a country whose President claims unlimited power to collect whatever information he wants about whoever he wants.
It is possible that our nation’s freedoms will continue to deteriorate -- particularly under an Attorney General who argues that in fact we have no rights and that the President's power is without limit. It is reasonable to expect that a present who is told that he can do whatever he pleases, and who has appointed loyal judges who will not challenge his unlimited power, will do whatever he pleases.
So, the information that goes through the search engines in this country are no more secure than those going through China. Bush could assert that negative information about the conflict in Iraq gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Then, with his claim of limitless power in matters of national security, and a legislature and court system willing to roll over and play dead, the situation here will be much like that in China.
If this happens, would it imply that Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have a moral obligation to shut down their web search technologies?
If these institutional changes would not obligate these companies to abandon the United States under such circumstances, then it does not obligate them to abandon China.
Doing What One Can
Actually, I believe that Google's corporate leadership deserves some measure of praise. They negotiated terms that make a far stronger stand against censorship than Yahoo or Microsoft. Google searches, if government censorship filters the result, will carry a message that informs the user that there is information out there the government refuses to allow them to see.
If I could get a message to the Chinese people, I would tell them to dump Yahoo and Microsoft search engines in favor of Google -- in favor of knowing when their access to information is restricted.
This may set up competition between these three companies on which can provide the least amount of censorship. Each can go to work trying to get as much through the censorship net as possible, and using this in advertising how their product is better than their competitors'.
However, this type of competition can exist only among companies that are in the market.
The Hypocrisy Charge
The charge of hypocrisy is easier to counter. There is no hypocrisy involved.
Assume that you are alone when a mugger comes up to you, pulls a gun, and demands $500. Reluctantly, you give him the money. A week later, another mugger comes up to you. This time, you have an armed body guard with you. The mugger pulls a small knife and demands $20. You refuse to pay, and introduce this mugger to your body guard.
So, the mugger complains, "Last week, I saw you give that guy $500. It is hypocritical of you not to give me $20 now!"
People in the United States have a body guard to protect them against government intrusion -- a body guard called the Bill of Rights. Well, they had a body guard called the Bill of Rights until President Bush killed it over four years ago, and some companies sadly pretend that it still exists.
In China, businesses have no such bodyguard -- no such Bill of Rights.
The fact that a company in a country without a Bill of Rights cannot fight back against the censor does not prove that it is hypocritical of him to use that Bill of Rights to fight a government in a country that has (had) such an institution.