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

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, Emerging Tech, Google, Microsoft, China

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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  • Human rights is not a game.

    I wouldn't mind a complete boycott.

    "So is Google as wife beater a fair analogy?"

    Probably not. You need a much stronger analogy. Because, frankly, it's worse than a single household dispute. It's the hearts and minds of the largest nation on earth.

    "Is disengagement & divestment really preferable?"


    "To what extent is Google really complicit in human rights abuse in China anyway?"


    "First, not all human rights are equal under international law."

    Human right are God given. I could care less about human law.

    "Gross human rights abuses . . ."

    . . . come soon after the rights that are not considered "gross human rights" are taken away.

    "Its hard to play moral equivalency games with this stuff"


    [b]Human rights is not a game. If you're trying to "play a game," you need to stop.[/b]

    I don't care for the watered-down, explain-as-not-being-"gross," trying-to-make-excuses-for-doing-the-wrong-thing, wishy-washy, gotta-make-a-compormise attitude. I really don't.

    People need to make a stand. People need to make a difference. People need to rattle a few cages.

    I'm not saying do anything stupid or extreme, but this is really not the time for watering down the issue, or pretending it's less bad than it really is.
    • People have rattled cages, but people have also realized

      That totally disengaging from these countries doesn't work to change their governments, and only make the people of said countries hate you for making their lives less well-off than they otherwise would be.

      The sad part is that it DOESN'T make them want to overthrow their dictatorial governments, it just turns them into terrorists!
      • Should Google make 30 billion a year from China ...

        betcha they'd be willing to hand the email content of every gmail user and his mom to Chinese government, and we wouldn't hear a thing about these "human right", "freedom", "moral bars" and so on.
        • based on what facts? nt

    • water it down?

      I really wasn't attempt to water down human rights. Often morality is in the eye of the beholder so what I was describing was 'legal' tests of complicity to try to reach a more onjective analysis. I do call that out
      • re: water it down?

        "Often morality is in the eye of the beholder . . ."

        I gave up on relative/subjective morality a long time ago - for precisely this reason. It does nobody any good to pretend that morality is relative or subjective. It has to be foundational, something with a strong base and not dependent on any culture or person.
        • Morality and culture

          I agree. But I choose to use the legal definitions of comlicity to make the case as concrete as possible
    • Religion...

      ...has no place this discussion.

      Human rights are most definitely NOT "God given" as God has not stood before a judge and proclaimed it so. His Words are an ever-changing transcription. How can He possibly be used in this context as a measuring stick for human rights and human wrongs?

      Human law is all we have to assess a specific situation and categorize it as humane or inhumane.

      Who's right? Who's wrong? That hard to say.

      But God most definitely has added nothing to this discussion. Especially when it comes to whether or not an Internet search engine should display results to users of a specific country or not.
      • Religion?

        who said anything about relgion?
  • RE: Should Google, Microsoft or anyone else divest & disengage from China?

    I also applaud Google for a taking a stand for privacy, but
    there is a irony
    here. Where else is my searches, email and calls (if I use
    Google Voice),
    chat logs all stored in one virtual place? Does a smart
    hacker get access
    to the keys of the privacy kingdom?

    The 800 pound gorilla in "social media" and "web 2.0" is
    privacy and
    security of data. Only god knows what has been accessed
    that we don't
    know about. Not to sound a conspiracy theorist alarm
    about the internet
    version of "Black Helicopters", but it does make me
  • The only pressure we can put on these countries is economic

    Threats of war don't work against them because they know that the people of the world (rightfully) don't like having even a dictatorship taken over by military actions (save if the people of the country in question are the ones doing so!), because it seems to come back to bite us in the butt every single time.

    Absent that sanely withheld military option.... MONETARY pressures are the best way to make foreign government change, by us simply saying "Become democratic or, at least, enshrine something like our bill of rights in your laws, or we won't do business with you!"
    • How do you put economic pressure on a country...

      ...that you're indebted to for a trillion dollars?
      Mr. Slate
      • pressure

        China needs trade and export markets
      • The debt itself at this point is pressure

        We owe them so much that we basically own them. They depend on us paying them back.

        Of course they own us to, without China the US economy would collapse. Fighting China is a dangerous game, unfortunately it is also necessary.
        • China

          yep ... i think we are at a new era of Sino relations
  • RE: Should Google, Microsoft or anyone else divest & disengage from China?

    The Americans in the crowd should not forget that human rights were a big issue in the US mid last century (that's about 1950...) and before. The US was about 200+ years old at that time (forgive me if I am wrong on the number) and today China is barely 60 years 'old'. Time will change the country for the better but we must be circumspect of our own past history
  • RE: Should Google, Microsoft or anyone else divest & disengage from China?

    It is strange to read people's take on Google (Forbes, Guardian) that either misconstrue the company's decision to exit, or bash them over the head for entering China in the first place.

    Other companies do NOT receive the same scrutiny for "doing-the-right-thing". Which makes the commentary on this case so bizarre. Additional thoughts below.
    • well...

      No other company constantly trumpets its own self righteousness as Google either with its "Do No Evil" motto. The close scrutiny is self inflicted, I have no empathy for Google, just another huge corporation jockeying for market domination.
  • RE: Should Google, Microsoft or anyone else divest & disengage from China?

    Another bunch of mid west american farmers being thoughtful for the world. BTW, the world is not flat. How and what you choose to live does not mean I need to follow too!

    Pls google if it is really that bad, just pack and leave. We are not in kindergarten any more, make up your mind and act !
    John Dol
  • ..."or anyone else"...

    Expecting Apple dump it's low-cost commie sweatshoppes?
    Feldwebel Wolfenstool