Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Google's Political Role in China

Google announced that it is no longer willing to censor Internet traffic in China.


I find it very interesting that US government spokespeople, including Hillary Clinton, are encouraging Google to take a stand against the Chinese government's ambitions to censor material on the net, implicitly acknowledging Google's efforts in uncovering issues in the human rights domain. The article talks about how Google uncovered potentially illegal third party access of the personal emails of human rights activists. Was it the Chinese Government? The article seems to suggest so.

Not only is Google policing Internet activity to assure human rights but they are also indirectly influencing national government policy on freedom of speech. I'm sorry, wasn't this supposed to be a public service provided and guaranteed by public bodies? Western nations, Canada included, have tried for years, with limited success, to impose human rights on other nations, including China. I definitely don't want to have a debate about whether human rights is indeed an issue in China. I'm more interested in whether Google is outperforming these traditional actors in achieving freedom of speech?

Whether Google is doing this directly or indirectly, it's important to acknowledge that multinational companies are growing more powerful in influencing politics than ever before. Should we be concerned about this or is this a good thing? Is it really that bad having a very ethical company like Google taking action that influences political behaviour? I mean, look at the following quotation from the article, part of which includes a direct quote from Google:

"The company added that it was sharing the information not just because of the security and human rights implications 'but because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech'" (Branigan, The Guardian, Jan. 13, 2010)

Should we even bother with the philosophical debate or should we acknowledge that this influence and public role is here to stay and that we must work to understand what it means when we have for profit entities indirectly influencing public affairs? Perhaps the time where we lived in a society where roles were properly delineated (public versus private) is starting to disappear and the role of the manager has become undeniably complex has s/he works to reconcile the many competing interests that go beyond shareholder wealth.

I envy young managers of today and future managers who will have to navigate this very uncertain terrain.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post Mike. I think that the philosophical debate on whether profit driven companies are able to make morel has been raging for a few years, and companies have been losing. Google’s move yesterday might change a few arguments. The announcement to stop censoring searches shows courage most companies wouldn’t dream of. Google certainly did not have to make such a publicized event out of their departure if it simply were not profitable to be operating in China.
    In one day Google taken a stand against human rights abuses and done what our political leaders can't; walk their talk. The Chinese government is often criticized but no action is ever taken because of the opportunities of the Chinese market. I hope other companies follow Google’s lead. The long road of ‘working from the inside’ to create change might eventually loosen Chinese regulation. But so does saying enough is enough. Google will take lots of capital and create a big stir within China if they leave.