Business Responsibility for Freedom of Expression: Should Google Re-enter the China Internet Search Market?
As everyone throughout the world must have heard by now, Trump’s America is deeply divided. It’s not easy to unite Democrats, Republicans, and tech workers, but Google has managed to do just that. CEO Sundar Pichai has angered politicians from both parties and his own employees by refusing to answer questions as to whether Google intends to resume its core search engine business in China.
Though their justifications are different, politicians and techies reach the same conclusion: it is ethically wrong to go back to China because of human rights concerns. We agree, to an extent. It is probably unethical to return, but things are not so black-and-white as either Google employees or members of Congress seem to suppose.
It has been almost a decade since Google exited the China search market. (The company has continued to expand other business units in China, most notably artificial intelligence and cloud services.) When Google last operated in China, the company attempted to minimize its own complicity in censorship by including a notice stating that the results were incomplete in accordance with Chinese law. That law, which is still in force today, prevents Chinese citizens from accessing information relating to topics deemed inconvenient by the Chinese regime: democracy, Falun Gong, revolution, Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and so on.
That such censorship by the Chinese government violates fundamental notions of human rights is indisputable. Article 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) spells out clearly the human rights aspects of internet censorship. “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regard less of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” While the Chinese government would surely interpose arguments about culture and national sovereignty justifying limits on the rights described in the ICCPR, the depth and breadth of censorship practiced in China goes well beyond any such reasonable limits tailored to national characteristics. So the government of China is violating the human rights of its citizens, but the question remains: What human rights obligations do internet service providers like Google have when operating in a country like China which demands censorship from the private sector?
Enter Google and ‘Dragonfly,’ a new search engine that would do exactly what the old one did: censor access to information. A number of important factors have changed since 2010. In the Silicon Valley business community where we teach, Google employees were once famous, or perhaps notorious depending on your point of view, for being tightlipped. However, the Dragonfly scheme (as well as the more recent reports of Google’s egregious handling sexual harassment complaints) has made Google employees so upset that they are talking. A lot. Google employees leaked the company’s intention to return to China, well before Dragonfly was fully developed. They also circulated a letter of protest and some have even resigned. Dr. Jack Poulson, a lead research scientist for Dragonfly, was not informed that the project he was working on was intended for the censored Chinese market. According to The Intercept, Poulson wrote in his resignation letter: “I am forced to resign in order to avoid contributing to, or profiting from, the erosion of protection for dissidents.”
Members of the US Congress from both sides of the aisle also say it is wrong for Google to go back to China with Dragonfly, because doing so would violate democratic principles of free speech, free association and the marketplace of ideas. As Google was founded on precisely these ideals, and in a country that is committed to upholding those ideals, Google’s plan is hypocritical at best, or morally criminal at worst, they argue. A letter signed by Republican Senators Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Cory Gardner, together with Democratic Senators Mark Warner, Ron Wyden, and Robert Menendez asserts: “this reported plan is deeply troubling and risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime.”
So why do we say things are not so ethically black-and-white as either Google employees or US Senators seem to suppose? While we believe that important human rights concerns are at the heart of the Dragonfly project, we also believe it is morally relevant to give some consideration to the property rights of shareholders in Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
Lost in the criticism about Google’s complicity in violating the free speech rights of Chinese citizens was the fact that when Google was operating in China it largely fulfilled its duty to adhere to US as well as Chinese laws, while attempting to fulfill its duty to shareholders by attempting to access by far the largest internet market in the world. (As of August, there are over 800 million internet users in China, and that number is growing more quickly than in any other internet market in the world.) Further complicating the equation is the fact that many Chinese would happily welcome the return of Google’s censored service because they believe, warts and all, it is better than the Chinese alternatives.
The biggest mystery about Dragonfly is not how it works, but why Google thinks it has any chance of building a sustainable search engine business in China when, given the self-lifetime-appointment of Xi Jinping together with his rollbacks of more permissive economic and social policies, free speech rights have worsened. Google ultimately failed its duty to return value to stockholders when it exited China in 2010. That is almost certain to happen again.
We paint a more complex human rights picture than is envisaged by members of Congress and by Google employees. It is, of course, easy to create corporate villains and in recent years as they have become more powerful and successful, Silicon Valley tech companies, not without reason, have become ethical piñatas. But we do not believe the right path to to making businesses more respectful of human rights is to ignore the moral relevance of duties owed to corporate shareholders. It is one thing to say business leaders have moral responsibilities to diverse stakeholders for human rights issues. It is another thing entirely to act as though owners don’t have a major and legitimate stake in a business. Business and Human Rights becomes a way too easy subject when you don’t make any effort to consider the practical impact of a company’s human rights obligations. Sometimes those obligations are absolute where a company might itself instigate or be complicit in violence, but in many instances the moral responsibilities of business with respect to human rights needs a more difficult and nuanced analysis.
So, should Google return to China? Google’s duties pull it legitimately in both directions: to go and not to go. Should it go with Dragonfly, which we and its designers take to be just another censored search engine: no. That move did not work last time, and there is no reason to think it will work this time. Should, or could, Google develop a search engine, let’s call it for the moment Dragonfly 2.0, that can somehow, perhaps creatively, comply with Chinese regulations while meaningfully allowing Chinese citizens improved access to rights of free speech and virtual assembly: quite possibly. After all, rational Alphabet shareholders will prefer economic sustainability and growth over a temporary return. In either case, from Google employees to American leaders, nobody seems to have fully grasped all of the subtleties of the human rights issues involved.
Michael A. Santoro is a professor at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University and author of China 2020: How Western Business Can—and Should—Influence Social and Political Change in the Coming Decade (Cornell University Press, 2009). He is a co-editor of Business and Human Rights Journal and President of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association. Robert Shanklin is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Santa Clara University, where he teaches business ethics and Chinese philosophy. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and his scholarship concerns how ethical judgments shift meanings depending on context.