This seems to be a week for interesting controversies to bubble up in the Internet space. Earlier in the week it was all about Yahoo! Search and Google (see my article What do Yahoo, Apple and Ferrari have in common? for more on that tempest in a teapot) and today it’s all about Google again, but this time relating to one of the most basic ethical questions not just in business, but in life itself:
Do you stand on your principles and potentially fail, or do you compromise and profit?
The specific issue du jour is whether Google should have launched its Google China site, which has restrictions and filters on the results shown to comply with Chinese government regulations. Google frames the discussion on its blog here: Google in China, and even Bill Gates gets into the debate at the Davos conclave when he defended China’s Internet restrictions by saying that the Internet “is contributing to Chinese political engagement” as “access to the outside world is preventing more censorship”.
Are they right, or are they wrong?
I really see this as one of the most fundamental issues that anyone has to face, and certainly that any company faces, and I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a manufacturing CEO about a dozen years ago when he shared that his company was expanding into China and I responded with the question “how can you be comfortable doing that knowing China’s record on human rights?”
His response: “That’s not a business issue. It’s a good move for us to expand, so that’s what we’re doing.”
As with so much in life, I think that there’s a continuum of ethical business activity, where one extreme is the idealist who won’t do business with companies that demonstrate different political views or support different religious leaders, or even have the wrong kind of cars in the parking lot, and the other extreme is the “Wall Street Shark” who believes that if there’s a profit to be made, it’s a good deal and, after all, isn’t business all about making a profit anyway?
Unlike most situations, though, I think that there’s a middle ground, a place that I call pragmatic reality where companies do their best to act in an ethical manner that’s consistent with both the values of the company and of the leaders of the firm, but are also willing to compromise to ensure that they remain successful too.
This has played out again and again over the years. Remember shareholders boycotting companies that did business in South Africa? But didn’t it turn out that those very companies and their enlightened human rights policies really helped eliminate apartheid?
More relevant to the Google China issue, what about the more recent issue of eBay and Nazi memorabilia: the German government will not allow memorabilia to be sold within the country and eBay had to change its German site to reflect that law. Did people complain that eBay had buckled under to the influence of a foreign government?
Of course not. Because we all understood that the risk of fascists glorifying the Third Reich remains a legitimate danger in Germany and felt that the German restrictions were logical and acceptable.
To me, the situation in China is quite similar. The nation has specific guidelines for what it does or doesn’t believe is appropriate information for public dissemination, and it requires companies that seek to do business with this, perhaps the single most lucrative market on the planet, to comply with its regulations.
We in the United States have similar regulations, we just codify them as libel and slander laws, as pornography laws, as anti-gambling laws and categorize them with MPAA ratings, warning labels on music and so on. They’re still the same thing, a codification of our own government-imposed regulations on acceptable speech and communications, and companies not complying get into trouble or are kicked out of the marketplace.
Don’t believe me? Try releasing an unrated foreign movie into mainstream theaters, or even distribute a book that’s been printed and published overseas, not here in the United States. Make it interesting, though, make it critical of a public figure and sprinkle in a bit of fabrication too. You don’t think that’d be pulled from the shelves and the distributor sued?
But I don’t want to argue that we have our own laws or not, because I want to be quite clear that I find it abhorrent that the Chinese want to filter the information that its citizens can access through the Internet. I also find it appalling that Chinese bloggers risk being shut down or even jailed for sharing their political or religious views.
To do business in a foreign country, however, you must respect their political, cultural and social rules. That’s not something up for debate, that’s just how business works, and how life works. If you’re going to spend some time in the Middle East, you better be aware of their social mores and laws about dress, gender roles, dissemination of information, etc.
Heck, if you’re going to visit my home, you need to know what we find acceptable and unacceptable behavior too. Use obscenities in front of my children and you’ll be sitting in the driveway wondering what happened, for example. Places – and countries – have behavioral, ethical and moral guidelines and either you fit in or you’re in for a tough journey, or worse.
The question that Google faces with Google China isn’t whether to “buckle under” to the Chinese laws – because not complying was never an option for the firm – but rather the simpler question of “go, no go”. Does the company want to have a presence in China, or not?
If the answer is “no”, then they’d be conceding a massive, critically important future marketplace for not just search, but the entire range of Google products, present and future. If the answer is “yes”, as it was, then the company has to comply with the laws and regulations of the country. There never was a “third choice” of going into the country and ignoring the laws.
And, while I’m thinking about it, there’s a major dose of ethnocentricity we’re dancing around here too, without labeling it. It’s another typically American perspective to believe that our way is the best and that we should impose our views, our values, and our politics on the rest of the world. Those countries that don’t want to adopt our Western Ways are just ignorant or lack enlightenment. You’ve heard this logic, I’m sure, even if it wasn’t quite presented as bluntly.
Ask yourself this question: what makes us think that the American set of acceptable speech and communication laws are so great while those of other countries (German with its anti-Nazi stance, the Middle East with its more restrictive rules on gambling and pornography, etc) are so backwards and wrong?
Big journeys start with a few small steps. Perhaps Google China can be one of those small steps to a better tomorrow in China, but it’s not an overnight revolution, that’s for sure.
For my part, I applaud Google’s decision to put aside the idealistic “do no evil” philosophy and become what all successful companies become: pragmatic.
Now let’s see what evolves…
Additional reading on the subject:
• Google: Do No Evil, Unless It’s with Communists
• Google Censors Itself for China
• Has Google Lost Its Soul?
• This Mess Keeps Getting Worse
• Eunuch Version of Google
• Why Google in China makes sense