Google in China: The Ethics of Censorship Abroad

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Google Inc. is an American-based firm that provides search engine services and online advertising services in the United States and internationally. As an American company Google is often associated with the values of its home country, including freedom of enterprise and speech. As a facilitator of rapid communication, the Internet is an appropriate tool for expressing such values. However, when Google expanded to China, the company soon discovered that the values it embodies are at conflict with the demands placed upon it by the Chinese government to censor the Internet access of Chinese citizens. Though critics argue that Google was wrong to censor the Internet in China, the potential benefits of accessing the Chinese market outweigh the ethical consequences.

Google, Inc. is an American business that provides search engine services to Internet users for free while generating its revenue through advertisements. Corporate culture is an important component of the image that Google wishes to project, and adhering to high ethical standards is among the company’s priorities. The company’s corporate philosophy statement is known for including the statement: You can make money without doing evil (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 469). Additionally, the company embraces the principle of free speech and open communication. Its corporate mission highlights the company’s aim to facilitate the free exchange of information by stating that its purpose is to provide access to information for people around the world (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 469). Thus, providing free access to information is a vital component of Google’s identity.

However, the company immediately faced ethical challenges when it conducted business in China. In contrast to the United States, where freedoms of speech are protected in the Constitution, China has an authoritarian government that plays a greater role in restricting the freedoms of its citizens. In order to maintain an authoritarian government, China considers the restriction of information that counters its government essential (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 469). Thus, in 2000, when Google launched its domain in China, the company agreed to censor its search results to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing prohibited information through the Google search engine (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 469). However, this agreement has not been without contention. In 2009, Google temporarily exited the Chinese market after determining that the Chinese government had hacked its site to obtain access to the email accounts of Chinese activists (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 469). After shutting down the Chinese site for five days, Google decided to reopen but modified its services and discontinued its provision of email accounts to Chinese users to prevent future violations from occurring (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 469). While the main source of conflict during the shut down was between Google and the Chinese government, this conflict also presented critical ethical dilemmas to consider.

The willingness of the Chinese government to abuse its relationship with Google to track down activists highlighted the ethical problems that arise when doing business with an authoritarian government. Considering the company already agreed to aid the Chinese government in restricting the access its citizens have to information through censoring its search results, it could be argued that Google had little moral standing in its opposition to the government obtaining the email addresses of activists. The primary ethical issue is that Google agreed to violate its own company values of providing access to information when it decided to enter the Chinese market.

Further, as the hacking incident demonstrated, the company enabled its service to be used as a conduit for the misdeeds of the Chinese government. When a company does business in a country with a poor human rights and civil liberties record, it should anticipate that the government might utilize the business to extend its ability to infringe upon the liberties of its citizens. The ability of the Chinese government to hack into the email accounts of activists demonstrates that the company gave little thought to the manner in which its services might become an accomplice to the Chinese government’s unethical behavior. Before entering the Chinese market, the company should have anticipated such a scenario and developed methods for protecting its users’ privacy.

Yet, despite these criticisms of the ethics of entering the Chinese market, there are benefits that outweigh the ethical consequences. First, by challenging China after the email hacking scandal, Google was able to draw political attention to censorship in China. As a result, many Chinese users sided with Google over the incident, expressing disapproval at the actions of their own government (Tan & Tan, 2012, p. 472). Further, the argument can be made that even with censorship, the presence of Google in China enables the company to exert its influence in China. Additionally, it can be argued that by refraining from conducting business in China, Google misses out on the opportunity to expose the company to its values and enables Chinese companies that have even closer ties to the government to conduct civil liberties violations upon the citizens willingly.

As the case of Google’s expansion to the Chinese market demonstrates, political and ethical conflict can often be intertwined in business. When a company operates in a country that has an authoritarian form of government or political conditions that are hostile to its values, it must often make ethical tradeoffs. In the case of Google, the company has decided to participate in filtering the results of its searches in order to maintain a suitable relationship with the Chinese government. Ultimately, the ethical tradeoff is justified. By adhering to censorship standards, China has the ability to conduct business in China and expose both its employees and the population to its cultural values and promote the free exchange of information.

Reference

Tan, J., & Tan, A. E. (2012). Business under threat, technology under attack, ethics under fire: The experience of Google in China. Journal of Business Ethics, 110(4), 469-479. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10551-012-1494-0