Bravo! Google takes a stand for human rights in China

Bravo! Google takes a stand for human rights in China

Summary: I admit to being a bit tough on Google in the past but they are one of the biggest kids in the playground and we are entitled to expect a lot from them when it comes to corporate responsibility leadership. And today Google is living up to and far beyond the call of its moto - 'don't be evil'.


I admit to being a bit tough on Google in the past but they are one of the biggest kids in the playground and we are entitled to expect a lot from them when it comes to corporate responsibility leadership. And today Google is living up to and far beyond the call of its moto - 'don't be evil'.

In an extraordinary blog post David Drummond, Google's Chief Legal Officer goes public to report:

  • serious cyber attacks on Google's infrastructure last month that resulted in theft of IP
  • 20 other companies from a broad range of sectors including finance, chemicals, media, technology were also targeted
  • the gmail accounts of Chinese human rights were targeted
  • subsequent investigation found that dozens Gmail accounts of human rights activists in the US, Europe and China were breached by organized phishing scams separate from the attack last month

Says Drummond:

Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident--albeit a significant one--was something quite different.

It appears, over time Google has found it hard to live up to its values in doing business in China and now its prepared to courageously confront the possibility that it will no longer continue to operate there if it cannot do so ethically. Google has already taken the decision that it will no longer censor searches.

We launched in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

The decision to review our business operations in China has been incredibly hard, and we know that it will have potentially far-reaching consequences.

Such a principled stand does indeed have far reaching consequences and we all ought to be thankful to Google for taking a stand for all of us, for universal principles of human rights. Such bravery is sadly all too rare and with too many companies and governments demonstrating a sense of learned impotence that is the tragedy of the commons when it comes to human rights and sustainability. Perhaps this move will prompt Yahoo! CEO, Carol Bartz to rethink her position on China which she set out last summer in response to questioning by Amnesty International:

Okay, I’m going to go real simple here. Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It wasn’t incorporated to fix China. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information. Ten years ago the company made a mistake but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever. We have worked better, harder, faster than most companies to respect human rights and to try and make a difference. But it is not our job to fix the Chinese government. It’s that simple. We will respect human rights, we will do what’s right, but we’re not going to take on every government in the world as our mandate. That’s not the mandate that the shareholders gave us.

One year into her CEO tenure this week Carol Bartz captured headlines by giving herself a B-. If she stands shoulder to shoulder with Google on a principled stand to protect human rights under threat I'll give her an A+.

Topics: China, Emerging Tech, Google

James Farrar

About James Farrar

James has more than 15 years of experience working on corporate sustainability issues from both the corporate and NGO campaigning perspective.

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  • A worhty stand

    Google has gone up a peg in my estimation. To take such a stand in such a massive market is bold and noble.

    It will be interesting to watch the initial reaction from the Chinese and the subsequent story as it unfolds.

    This is one to keep an eye on.
  • Absolutely unreal

    You're taking a corporation to task for not taking a stand
    against human rights violations in China? How about taking
    your national government to task.

    I swear, the brainwashing has gone so deep among so many
    Americans they actually think a business is more powerful
    than a government.
    • Government is run by business...

      Even if you go back to our fore fathers they were not poor farmers, they were wealthy business men, and the revolutionary war was fought to protect their business.
      • Excuse me Mister

        Of course they weren't poor farmers. Keep in mind there is no inherent virtue in being either poor or a farmer. Additionally, the Revolutionary War was most definitely not fought to protect their personal businesses. You realize that war was by no means a good bet, and the penalty under the British for being a member of the Continental Congress was to be drawn and quartered? Where's the profit motive there?

        Perhaps you also believe the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery?
        • Sorry...

          The rich didn't want to pay money to the King. The King "owned" all unallocated land, therefore it was necessary to become independent and thus a Revolutionary War was required.

          How did the poor actually benefit from the war?
          Didn't the rich sponsors actually gain the "property that the King formerly "owned"?

          I am not saying that the English were blameless.

    • taking to task

      You are correct. National governments need to do more here. But corporations have responsibilities too.
      • To us or their shareholders!!!! [NT]

        • us or shareholders

          Both. Google won't have a business if it allows the data of its users to be accessed and rights violated. No trust = no users = no business = no shareholder value.
          • Ideally yes, realistically no.

            I understand what you are saying, but, if you
            can show me where, in Googles Article of
            Association or Memorandum that Google has a
            responsibility to the public then i would

            I wish it was as easy as no trust = no users =
            no business = no shareholders, but you know
            that's not the case and still doesn't answer my

            Yes Google have a (profit motivated)
            responsibility to provide a decent and secure
            service to the public otherwise we as consumers
            don't buy, it doesn't mean they are obligated
            to provide a secure service nor does it mean
            they are responsible to the public.
          • Ideal/Realism

            I think even Milton Friedman would disagree with you here as he acknowledges the responsibility to 'ethical custom'.

            Let me turn this around. I agree, Ideally Google has no public responsibility. Realistically it certainly does.
          • fixed it for you...

            change this: "Realistically it certainly does."

            To this: In a perfect world it certainly would.

            You need to remember that the ONLY authority Google (and pretty much any other corporation) recognizes is the majority shareholders, and if a bunch of minority shareholders band together, giving their proxy to one spokesperson, then they become the majority shareholder and again, their word counts most.

            Also, it kills me that people equate privacy and access to full information with one of those "basic human rights".

            Just like a driver's license, privacy and access to full information are privileges, not rights.
          • Let me rephrase!

            When you incorporate a for profit company in
            the UK, there are 2 documents you need to
            supply, An articles of Association which
            defines your business and how you will operate
            and clearly defines it's responsibilities to
            shareholders and directors (no mention of
            general public responsibility what so ever) and
            a Memorandum of Association which defines what
            the company can and can't do, based on objects
            (again, no mention of general public
            responsibility what so ever), both documents
            must be in compliance with the Companies Act.

            US for profit companies are subject to the same
            requirements but with a slight difference only
            one document is required that incorporates
            everything stated above compared to there UK
            counterparts, however, neither document(s)
            expresses any obligations or responsibilities
            to the general public, period.

            Even in relation to a PLC (Public Limited
            Company) the limit of responsibility is to
            those members of the public that have bought
            shares, hence shareholders.

            If you would like me to provide a copy of these
            documents i can do so.

            So realistically, Google has no
            obligations/responsibilities to the public, as
            i said before, however for marketing purposes a
            company may adopt principles of responsibility,
            after all, its the public that buys the product
            or service so a good image with the general
            public goes a long way, hence public
            responsibility becomes an ideal to a company as
            it's real purpose is to generate profit for its

            I would doubt that Milton Friedman would
            disagree because he's probably written or at
            least read a few Articles of Incorporation to
            know exactly what i am talking about.

            So in an ideal world, companies should have
            public responsibility, but they don't and not
            all exercise public responsibilities, hence the
            use of ideally and hence, scenario's such as
            child and slave labour, global pollution and
            waste to name a few.

            PS and i wouldn't think Google having no public
            responsibilities as ideal, but i will consider
            that a hasty error on your part.
    • Talk about brainwashed

      you has no clue what information can be provided in China
  • Taking a stand? Funny, when the money was coming in

    Google was more then willing (happy) to turn a blind eye to human rights issues in China.

    But now that it's Google's "rights" (IP) that have been violated, they're suddenly "concerned" about human rights issues in China?

    They're taking a stand allright: a stand for Google's profits.
    John Zern
    • This isn't (just) about profits or IP


      I am not sure it is about IPR protection or
      an adverse impact on profits.

      Google 's search market share in China has grown
      from 16 p.c. in '06 to 31.2 p.c. now. Estimated
      revenues for 2010 are USD 600 mn.

      While, in retrospect, one might say that the
      move into China was wrong, they may have been
      driven by both the size of the opportunity and
      the possibility of bringing about positive

      Sergey Brin had openly stated in 2006
      ( that while he
      thought the China move was a
      compromise of Google's principles, they saw
      potential to improve the overall quality of
      information available to Chinese users.

      While search censorship is mandated by law and
      openly known in China, concerted attempts to
      gain access to private information by hacking
      email accounts is a more serious issue. Google
      may have finally decided they are unwilling to
      go down this route any further and may have even
      sensed an opportunity to bring about radical
      change by a pullout from China. In fact, this
      seems to be consistent with Google's stated
      approach towards China. Google's official blog
      post speaks about this at length

      I am sure things are going to get a lot more
      interesting from here on - if Google does pull
      out, other major international companies may be
      forced to review their Chinese operations too
      and this may eventually turn the heat on the
      Chinese govt.
      • I can't agree

        Theyt knew full well going it what they were getting into, and just how far they could go.

        They chose to ignore it. If over time they turned out to be the number one search provider, and collected the money associated with that position, this conversation wouldn't be happening.

        The fact they're data was hacked and they're #2, well, this is a good excuse as any.

        Google pulling out just because they're numbers weren't there would be embarrasing.
        John Zern
        • I cant agree

          I take your point John but it can't be that simple. Its a very high strageic stake to bet -- to just walk away from China forever becuase the numbers in the short run are'nt turning up. Google is deciding it cannot do business in China.
          • CARRY ON (SPINNING)

            Google should never have been working with
            China in the first place, considering the human
            rights abuses and nor should any other company
            that respects human rights.

            Ok, lets take on board that they thought they
            could do something good in China, was that the
            sole motivation, if so, why are they pulling
            out at the first sign of problems, it makes the
            notion of wanting to help China seem feeble,
            hence it looks like such a notion was second to
            potential revenue.

            Secondly, by censoring searches Google where
            actually assisting the regime in China, not
            helping its citizens and there's no hiding from
            that fact.

            Are you seriously saying that Google's sole
            purpose for working with China was to help
            China and not for profit. That's an absolute

            This sounds more like journalist spin James and
            your providing the spin.
          • spining


            I would never say Google's role is solely to help China and its people without any business objective. thats absurbd.

            I wish the world was simple enough that we could make these absolute judgments and anyway I dont want a business to make that call.

            Google's responsibility was to operate a profitable business and on balance to not make the the rights landscape any worse.

            Now Google has made the call that it cannot maintain cyber security nor protect rights. No trust/ no security = no business = no profits.
          • Yes Spin

            "I would never say Google's role is solely to
            help China and its people without any business
            objective. thats absurbd."

            Niether would i, but suggesting human rights
            was higher up on the list for reasons to pull
            out is still spin, because if it where, they
            would not have gone to China in the first

            "I wish the world was simple enough that we
            could make these absolute judgments"

            The world doesn't have to be simple, a business
            decision can be simple though, in this case; it
            would be nice to generate a huge amount of
            profits from China but we won't because of
            human rights abuses, It's that simple.

            "and anyway I dont want a business to make that

            So what are you suggesting, that companies
            should not make "responsible" decisions to do
            business in a country where human rights abuses
            are apparent, they should just go right on
            ahead, and leave the abuses to the Worlds
            Governments to deal with.

            but they can make the following call:

            "If she stands shoulder to shoulder with Google
            on a principled stand to protect human rights
            under threat I?ll give her an A+"

            So not only should Google pull out and not do
            business with China, but Yahoo too, but yet you
            don't want businesses to make such calls.

            "Google's responsibility was to operate a
            profitable business"

            yes agreed (and still is).

            "and on balance to not make the the rights
            landscape any worse."

            So how does not making things worse equate to
            helping make things better, so what your
            suggesting now is that there was no intention
            of trying to help China in protecting rights it
            was a guise, hence it was purely profit

            "Now Google has made the call that it cannot
            maintain cyber security nor protect rights. No
            trust/ no security = no business = no profits."

            Oh so now there trying to protect rights again
            even though they shouldn't be making such

            But then that's what happens when you put spin
            under scrutiny, it starts to look abit, well,
            contradictory, and this is blatant spin, on
            your part (intentional or not) and on Google's
            part. There not pulling out because of human
            rights issues, there pulling out because of
            security issues.

            PS: If human rights activist where targeted
            then maybe Google are thinking this is
            something to do with China's government and not
            a general user attack (which Google should be
            able to deal with) hence the pull out.