Should Google, Microsoft or anyone else divest & disengage from China?

Summary:It's beginning to become clear that Google's push back on China has become a watershed moment in the history of industrial globalization and everyone is struggling for context.  It's important to consider the increasing anxiety in the US over the rising economic power & competitiveness of China as we address the core question: should Microsoft, Google & everyone else head for the airport and get out of China now in the interests of human rights?

It's beginning to become clear that Google's push back on China has become a watershed moment in the history of industrial globalization and everyone is struggling for context.  It's important to consider the increasing anxiety in the US over the rising economic power & competitiveness of China as we address the core question: should Microsoft, Google & everyone else head for the airport and get out of China now in the interests of human rights? Is the public analysis of a question of principle based divestment getting clouded by a political urge for trade protectionism? Watch for this in the US government handling of China trade issues going forward. The diplomatic landscape has certainly also changed since the Google protest this week.

One of the most extreme points of view I've read to date is from erstwhile Guardian hack, current TechCrunch impresario Paul Carr who offers this advice:

anyone who is applauding Google for taking a stand against censorship needs – ironically – to sit the hell down and shut the hell up.

And the Carr analysis:

But whatever your view, you have to accept that Google spent four years, and earned vast sums  of money, operating under China’s censorship laws. And now only when they suffer an attack that threatens to damage their business worldwide – “What? The communists can hack my Gmail?” – have they suddenly found a conscience. But what it’s absolutely not is a “moral position”, nor one that they should be particularly applauded for, any more than a man who has spend four years beating his wife should be applauded when he decides to stop. If anyone should be applauded it’s the man who didn’t beat his wife in the first place: companies like Twitter and Facebook whose refusal to work with the Chinese government lead to them being blocked last July.

So is Google as wife beater a fair analogy? Is disengagement & divestment really preferable? To what extent is Google really complicit in human rights abuse in China anyway? 

Well, Google did voluntarily censor search in China but it also took action in mitigation including:

  • informed users when search results were withheld
  • to protect security Google never allowed the hosting of gmail accounts or Blogger on servers located in China
  • maintained the China service for the benefit, at least, of the diaspora
  • lobbied the US State Department to keep censorship high on the agenda of bilateral negotiations

In conceding that it was complicit in repressing freedom of speech Google argued that, on balance, complete disengagement would worsen the climate for human rights and the steps in mitigation were reasonable and responsible.

Our hope is that our mix of measures, though far from our ideal, would accomplish more for Chinese citizens’ access to information than the alternative. We don’t pretend that this is the single “right” answer to the dilemma faced by information companies in China, but rather a reasonable approach that seems likely to bring our users greater access to more information than any other search engine in China.

So how does the Google position withstand more objective scrutiny of complicity?

In 2008 the International Commission of Jurists closely examined the issue of complicity and gave some helpful guidance for corporations in how to avoid legal risk. That's not the same as moral responsibility but still the analysis is instructive.

First, not all human rights are equal under international law. Gross human rights abuses such as crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes, torture, slavery or extra judicial executions carry the greatest weight of liability and victims do have protection under international law

Next, there are specific tests for determining corporate complicity in gross human rights violations and therefore liability under international law including:

  1. has the corporation enabled gross human rights violations? - without the company's conduct the abuses would not have occurred. Here the example cited is where a company enables the targeting of trade unionists under threat of gross human rights abuses by handing over the personal information of its employees to repressive authorities.
  2. has the corporation exacerbated gross human rights violations? - the company's conduct made the abuses and the harm worse. Here the example cited is where a company supplies electric batons to police services known to torture.
  3. has the company facilitated gross human rights violations? - the company's conduct changes the way abuses are carried out. Here the example cited is where a company provides a government already committing gross human rights abuses with more sophisticated software to enable more efficient targeting. 

Its hard to play moral equivalency games with this stuff but based on these criteria we can quickly arrive at a view that Google's decision to censor search did not lead to gross human rights violations and it took care to avoid such by keeping gmail and blogger account data off of servers located in China. Where Google have been complicit in the violation of lesser human rights its not at all clear cut that Google fully facilitated, exacerbated or enabled the violation.

Contrast this with circumstances surrounding Yahoo!'s actions in China in 2004 when it passed personal account information to the Chinese authorities regarding pro democracy journalist Shi Tao which resulted in him being arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for 'illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities'. Here the actions were more direct and the consequences of the complicity in human rights violations were a great deal more severe.

Cisco Systems also found itself answering hard questions when in 2008 Wired Magazine published a leaked internal presentation which suggests that Cisco saw rigid censorship in China positively an opportunity to market more routers to a repressive regime.  

Also for illustration, consider the case of Shell in Nigeria and its alleged activities leading up to the arrest and execution of environmental campaigner Ken Saro Wiwa.  Shell and its one time Nigeria corporate Chairman Brian Anderson last summer settled a civil human rights claim out of court but the allegations of complicity in gross human rights violations makes for harrowing reading. Among the allegations made against Shell and Anderson:

  • company procurement and / or provision of weapons & equipment for state security services
  • payments made to state security services
  • exchange of intelligence information with state security services
  • participation in planning of raid and terror campaigns against the Ogoni tribal people by state security services
  • participation in campaign to arrest Saro Wiwa on false murder charges and the bribery of witnesses to provide false testimony
  • that Anderson met with Owens Saro Wiwa's and offered to trade the freedom of his bother in return for an end to international protests against Shell. Ken Saro Wiwa was later executed.

Of course the Shell allegations have never been proven due to the out of court settlement but they do give a useful illustration of really serious corporate complicity in gross human rights violations. Shell still operates in Nigeria and since this rather painful chapter in its history it has transformed its internal infrastructure for corporate governance for corporate social responsibility and ethics.

Clearly, Google's complicity in human rights never approached the seriousness of gross human rights abuses alleged against Shell or Yahoo. Even if Google can be judged guilty of a degree of complicity in lesser human rights violations heretofore, its heartening to see Google take a stand now to push back on state censorship. The big question now is what will Microsoft (or Cisco) do to address the concerns Google has raised about doing business in China as a global internet company? Personally I think it would be a sad conclusion if Google or Microsoft were to withdraw but this may come to pass. (Bear in mind, none of the major human rights activist NGOs are calling for a pull out.) If it does we may come to see this and China's recent behaviour to prevent a global deal on climate change as the beginning of the end of this current era of market & cultural globalization.

Topics: Social Enterprise, China, Google, Microsoft, Innovation


James has more than 15 years of experience working on corporate sustainability issues from both the corporate and NGO campaigning perspective. He has worked directly within the banking (Farm Credit System), aviation (British Airways) and IT (SAP) sectors in the USA and Europe. His campaigning experience includes work at Amnesty Internatio... Full Bio

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