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Microsoft and Google Censor for China

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softwareNerd
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I don’t think any of these companies had corporate philosophies which barred aiding Red China.
You may well be correct: then the question is whether their philosophies and central purposes are themselves moral, given the ultimate standard of morality. Which, b.t.w. is life, and not the size of one's cash pile.
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A company can behave in a moral or immoral fashion but it is not the responsibility of the company to determine what is moral vs. what is immoral. It goes back to a company's purpose. The purpose of a company is to make money. Investors do not invest in companies so that company can form a committee and waste time and money discussing morality. That is not the purpose of a company. Companies are different from governments. A government’s purpose is to safeguard rights. To that end it is vital that the government determine right from wrong and put those principles into law. So I do blame the government for passing immoral laws and for not passing laws designed to protect private property rights. While I might take issue with a company’s actions I expect the government to tell them right from wrong. I do not expect the company to use investor’s money to divine philosophical principles.

Are you suggesting that the only pricinple a company follow is: We can do anything we want as long as our government didn't tell us it was wrong?

What exactly do you think philosophical principles are for exactly if not to help one understand how to make money? Most companies I know talk about values and ethics a hell of a lot. All have been faced with ethical dilemmas that govt laws don't even begin to touch, and most have had to discuss and determine what they would or wouldn't do. I am surprised that you think that somehow philosophical principles are so separated from the real world actions of a corporation.

Assuming you think that actions that are immoral, but not illegal, are still immoral, and should be made illegal, the regulatory implications of this are astounding. Do you rearlly want govt dictates to be the final source of what is moral? That's a hell of a lot of statutes that have to be created that don't exist today...

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A company can behave in a moral or immoral fashion but it is not the responsibility of the company to determine what is moral vs. what is immoral. It goes back to a company's purpose. The purpose of a company is to make money. Investors do not invest in companies so that company can form a committee and waste time and money discussing morality. That is not the purpose of a company. Companies are different from governments. A government’s purpose is to safeguard rights. To that end it is vital that the government determine right from wrong and put those principles into law. So I do blame the government for passing immoral laws and for not passing laws designed to protect private property rights. While I might take issue with a company’s actions I expect the government to tell them right from wrong. I do not expect the company to use investor’s money to divine philosophical principles.

Ok, I've stepped away a little bit. Sorry if my last post was a bit harsh and didn't explain itself well.

You do realize that this is the fundamental difference between libertarians and Objectivists? Objectivists do not equate liberty and morality.

The proper function of government is to protect the individual rights of its own citizens. This is a very limited political scope, and not nearly as broad a concept as the whole topic of ethics. As such, I would expect anyone or any company to come up upon all sorts of ethical situations on which government is and should be silent.

This does not mean that ethics does not exist, or that we cannot judge a particular person or company by ethical standards. Just because one is at liberty to do something does not mean that one should do it, morally speaking. That includes companies. Companies are not sentient beings in and of themselves. They are made of people. People decide policy, they should not hide behind its anonymity.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Yeah Jimmy! Score one for the Objectivist!
One would have thought that Wales's refusal to filter or censor the Wiki would have seen China extend the block that it already had in place on the Wikipedia. Instead, according to this article, they have lifted the ban. SO, perhaps the way this really works is:
  • they ban something
  • then, somehow, they figure they really want the site, but a filtered version
  • they ask for filtering and often people will comply
  • if their bluff is called, they lift their ban anyway

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  • 3 weeks later...

It's good to hear a MSFT executive say that there is a limit to the restrictions on free speech that the company will comply with:

Things are getting bad... and perhaps we have to look again at our presence there," [Fred Tipson, senior policy counsel for MSFT]told a conference in Athens. We have to decide if the persecuting of bloggers reaches a point that it's unacceptable to do business there. We try to define those levels and the trends are not good there at the moment. It's a moving target.

It's good to hear a MSFT executive say that there is a limit to the restrictions on free speech that the company will comply with:

Things are getting bad... and perhaps we have to look again at our presence there," [Fred Tipson, senior policy counsel for MSFT]told a conference in Athens. We have to decide if the persecuting of bloggers reaches a point that it's unacceptable to do business there. We try to define those levels and the trends are not good there at the moment. It's a moving target.
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Update: After their legal advisor made the comments above, MSFT has issued a statement, saying:

Microsoft is not considering the suspension of the company's internet services in China. On the contrary, it is committed to continuing to offer services and communications tools in China as it believes it is better for customers that Microsoft is present in global markets with these tools and services as this can not only promote greater communication, but can also help to foster economic opportunity and social collaboration.
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  • 2 weeks later...
The proper function of government is to protect the individual rights of its own citizens.
I believe this should have been stated much earlier, but ‘better late than never’.

It is the government’s responsibility to let the company know, in no uncertain terms, (through law) what is moral and what is not.

Let us relate this to the previous quote. You are right about the government having to employ precise language in its laws, and yet, it is legal VS illegal that these laws are meant to identify--not moral VS immoral. A government cannot (and must not) force an individual to be moral--so long as his immorality poses no threat to other individual citizens. To take a simple example, a perfectly fit individual can decide that he wishes to work no more in order sustain himself, but would rather beg his bread from passers-by--his decision is clearly irrational, and thus immoral--and yet, if the government would have had a legitimate right to "put him back on the right track", we would not be as far off from those Slave Countries that you are condemning. Nevertheless, just as he cannot be forced to work; passers-by cannot be forced to "work for him" and to provide him with their bread, or (should we have lived under pure Capitalism) with a street corner to occupy and beg his bread from. Only if (and when) the man were to attack someone, or even sit on property he was not allowed to occupy--would the government have a legitimate cause to intervene.

This may appear as a subtle difference--however, I believe it is a very crucial one. It is the reminder that freedom is also the freedom to make mistakes--and to incur their consequences. The other side of this coin is when a 'government' is endowed with some assumed "superior knowledge", and grows beyond its legitimate scoop of protecting individual rights--and into ‘educating’ (or, in plain language, forcing) individuals to do what it decides as best for them. For an example of this, one need not look far across the horizon to China or North Korea--how about the government's waged "war against tobacco"? I live in Canada, but I believe there is a similar phenomena in the U.S. as well (at least in some parts). The underling principle is that the government knows better then an individual what is best for him--and can therefore "protect him from himself"...!

As for the issue of a company operating in a "slave country", I agree that it would be morally wrong on the company's side--but I disagree with the idea that the government should be allowed to forbid the company from doing so. As far as I can see, the only time (if any) a government can justly venture into the economy in such a manner as to restrict certain trade venues is when such trading would hamper the national security--for example, if a certain company was to trade in firearms or the likes with an avowed enemy. Yet, if a certain company were to have factories in a Totalitarian state, where cheap labor would be manufacturing its products for ridicules prices--not only would it not pose a national threat, it would further reduce it--for those dictators would be starving and overworking their own citizens for the benefit of our market, which would be overflowing with their cheaply produced goods; our market would keep on growing and benefiting, while theirs shrinking and stagnating--until their citizens would either recognize the source of their hardships--their government--and revolt; or shrink into oblivion. In either way, the main fault would be with their government. There might be reasons to find moral blame with the company as well, yet such reasons (hopefully grounded) should be addressed through public action (such as Boycott)--and not a governmental one. It is worth noting that even in so-called ‘sweatshops’, it is the government who’s in fault, while business at least gives those workers a chance for survival--and for a future. The question of forced labor is a different one, and probably for a different thread.

Now, this last issue of a company's morality brings me to my last point--which, strangely enough, was not mentioned yet...

The question of a company's moral obligations was discussed a number of times, and yet was never really answered--neither in general, nor within the context of the topic. Drew brought up the legitimate profit-motive, yet for some reason felt that it had to be divorced from morality in order for a company to be able to pursue it; while others here helped to further separate them by saying that 'business is not only about profit'--or at least not 'profit at all cost'. Now, I'm not saying that this last statement is untrue, to the contrary; it is a very important point--but it seems like in the heat of this discussion the question of a company's goals, and the science which guides them; morality--was somewhat forgotten.

A company's main goal, just like an individual's, is to do that which would prove most profitable for it--but most profitable in the long range. Now, let us consider this for a moment. I did not have a chance to read Microsoft's 'mission statement', but I did read the article published by Google (to which a link was posted in one of the earlier posts). The 'profit motive' as such was not mentioned; or, if it was, it was probably so short and insignificant that it failed to stick into my memory--on the other hand, what was stated over and over is the wish to (not the exact words) 'provide the people of China with an access to worldwide communications', 'provide the Chinese public with a better service', etc. Moreover, it was mentioned that in order to do so they would have to invest a good deal of resources. So, as to the preceding discussion of profit and morality; they did not seem to embark on this venture with the glowing sign of the dollar--but rather with the compassionate faces of those who want to 'better the world'; which, when coming not as a desirable consequence, but as a mission statement, is the hallmark of altruism. Now, I must say that they seemed to be quite sincere in their statement, and I don't think that they mean any harm--but the way I see it, if profit, and profit in the long run, was indeed their main concern, they would have no desire to invest any capital into a totalitarian state. And this is where I want to ask a question: frankly, I'm not really up to date with the Chinese Republic--but the last I've heard, they were under a Communist reign, i.e. a reign given to the whims of a brutal dictator, i.e. a dictator whose whims may stifle the boarders and the rules just as quickly and as easily as loosen them; so, even if we assume that the dictator is having a 'good mode' today (or a good plan), and even if this day is stretching across a few months or years--isn't a business concern pouring money onto such a scene--reassured by the dictators patting right hand--puts himself in a constant threat of the left one pulling out a gun announcing the nationalization?

I mean, how can you trust a con? And if you are telling yourself that he won't touch you because his country is starving and he needs your ingenuity, well, what should stop him once you've pulled him out of the ditch?

This is why a company, just like an individual, needs morality; and since a company is merely an assembly of individuals, each one of them should be an individual i.e. possessing his own individual convictions, derived from his own code of values, and based on a rational morality--and this is something no Ten Commandments, or a legislative equivalent, can substitute.

Lastly, as much as I appreciate Jimmy Wales for his unwillingness to compromise with the Chinese government on the issue of censorship, he offers yet another example of a person naively believing that he can reason with a con:

'One of the points that I'm trying to push is that if there's a small town in China that has a wonderful local tradition, that won't make its way into Wikipedia because the people of China are not allowed to share their knowledge with the world. I think that's an ironic side-effect and something the people in the censorship department need to have a much bigger awareness of: you're not just preventing information about Falun Gong or whatever you're upset about getting into China, you're preventing the Chinese people speaking to the world.

'

A government that couldn't care less about people dying in the streets would be moved by the fact that the surviving ones won't be able to tell the world about it...? Naïve?

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Let's put this in context.

Microsoft and Google are providing a service to people in China. The government is demanding it limit that service.

Is Google sending the Chinese government the list of people who look up forbidden words? Is anything that Microsoft is doing cause harm to anyone?

Prior to this the people had no, or less, access to a similar service. Now they have access, with restrictions. Restrictions that do not directly harm them.

If I decide to provide a service and restrict words like freedom, that is none of your business.

Microsoft and Google should be praised as they are providing a service to the people and their shareholders. The only condemnation is towards the government.

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Is anything that Microsoft is doing cause harm to anyone?
No.

Microsoft and Google should be praised as they are providing a service to the people and their shareholders.

That depends. What I've tried to present in my post was the following:

1. First, that even should their decision had been immoral, there would be no ground to call for a government action unless their course would have inflicted harm on someone else, and--

2. That, in this instance, the first and outmost source of immorality (if any) would lie not in them posing a threat to someone else, but in opening themselves to a possible threat by setting as their first priority to 'provide service to the people', as you say, without asking who are those people, and under what terms.

Now, as I’ve said in my previous post, I do not know enough about the conditions in China to say whether that is the case or not, but if China is given to the whims of a dictator, I think that investing their own capital into building an enterprise for the people on the quicksand of their government would constitute an immoral decision; precisely due to a failure in setting their own self interest as their first priority.

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  • 9 months later...

Many Chinese internet surfers are going to see an alert every 30 minutes, from the government, warning them to stay away from illegal content. (Here's the MSN Story.) (HT: HBL)

It's bizzare because it's such a cutesy, cartoony way of telling they might be thrown in jail.

bej10508281134.hmedium.jpg

the cartoon alerts will appear every half hour on 13 of China's top portals, including Sohu and Sina, and by the end of the year will appear on all Web sites registered with Beijing servers, the Beijing Public Security Ministry said in a statement.
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However, if we focus on the relative morality of this compared to other trade and cooperation with China, then this particular case is pretty average. The underlying choice for Microsoft is: do some amount of filtering, or be banned entirely.

A company setting up a factory in China might say that in the long run they will bring prosperity, and with it freedom. Similarly, Microsoft might argue that setting up some blogging rather than none will lead to more communication, less government control, and more freedom.

I actually agree with this. By observing reality you can see that so far, the closer China moves towards capitalism, the more freedoms their citizens have. Theoretically a functional capitalistic society needs freedom in order to operate, and this is what is happening in China -- both legally and illegally. The more dependent the Chinese society --and by extension the Chinese government-- become to their entrepreneurs and innovators, the greater the internal pressure will be towards freedom.

Now assuming that it is in our best interest for China to become a free society, the solution is probably to do more business with them, not less, in the long run. No matter how I look at the situation, it seems to me that more penetration there is of Western businesses, products, cultures, and ideologies will only lead to better things for both China and the West.

For us to stop trading with China, or for MicroSoft to pull out of the Chinese market all-together, pretty much only means that we are sacrificing ourselves in the short term while actually achieving the opposite of what our long term best interest is.

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I agree with Moebius' comment, with the proviso that I have not been to China, nor have I spent a large amount of time studying China. Having said that, from the knowledge I do have China seems to have essentially moved towards a more capitalist future. Its economy is growing at an incredible rate, nearly 10% a year, and exceeding that in many regions. This assumes official statistics are valid, although it is confirmed by other statistics such as electricity growth that is some 13%-15% per year.

This kind of growth is not happening because of central planning. It is happening despite the central planning that is still extensive in this economy. It is the result of private businesspeople building factories, businesses, buildings and homes. China has become the manufacturer to the world. Government still has a heavy hand, which it may use to thwart some businesses and unfairly help others, using many evil tactics, such as eminent domain, arbitrary regulations and taxation, confiscations, etc. However, through it all, an increasingly capitalist economy based on private property has emerged, de facto and increasingly de jure.

China still has the potentially fatal problem of a Communist Party that wants to retain control. The Communist Party rulers are increasingly trying to maintain that control through such silly and disturbing tactics as having Internet warning cartoons appear on people's computers. I predict they will grow more desperate to control the Chinese as the people become wealthier and exercise more de facto freedoms. Will we see another massive Tiananmen Square uprising in China? I don't know.

Over the long haul, our trade with China will increase the wealth of the Chinese people and our wealth. Trade will abet their path toward greater capitalism and hasten the day when the Communist Party must step down, although that outcome is not inevitable.

Although it is in our interest to trade with China, that is only true if American property rights are protected. We should demand that the Chinese respect our property and contractual rights when we trade with them. For example, the U.S. government should encourage adjudication of claims against Chinese theft of our intellectual property in American courts, if the Chinese won't enforce such rights. Naturally, if shoddy or unsafe Chinese goods hurt American customers, those customers and the American importers can sue for damages in American courts.

Much trade with China will not involve the moral dilemma of sanctioning government evil such as censorship. Simply buying manufactured goods in China, which is the country's principal export, does not involve sanctioning that government.

However, I do not have an answer for what Microsoft and Google should do. I do not think they are breaking any American laws by participating in the Chinese censorship of their internet services. However, helping the Chinese police to round up political prisoners or enabling censorship is immoral. If I were running these companies, I would refuse to cooperate, under the principle that it is not in my or my shareholders' long-run self-interest to abet such violations of core individual rights. But to really make that decision, I would need to know the full context.

The full context of Microsoft and Google's Chinese business is unknown to me. How egregious is the government censorship they abet? How successful is it? Do their Chinese customers have ways around the censorship? If the censorship is easily beaten, that changes things. As for Microsoft and Google helping Chinese police chase down specific users, how often does that happen, and for what "crimes" are these people apprehended?

My apologies if these questions have been answered in an earlier post. I have not read all of the posts on this thread.

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Interesting comments the last two. I tent to agree with it as well, but want to add a few caveats.

While in general I think that the observations are correct, that does not mean that one would use that general principle to evaluate all cases. Every case is different. It is not a foregone conclusion that trade with China in every case is good. I think it requires a structural analysis of what your actions mean within the industry you're dealing with.

My take on the internet thing is that if you believe that the idea of controlling access to the internet is futile, that the Chinese govt is actually compromising their hold on the people simply by allowing internet at all, regardless of whether they censor it, then it would be moral to help Chinese govt set that up even if you help them censor in the short term. Also it depends on how hard you as the software company work at making censorship effectively. That's mostly my take on it. The internet is too distributed to prevent activity from occuring on it 100% so it is a pipedream that China's govt will succeed in controlling the outfall from its implementation.

Now for a less distributed medium, lets say newspapers, then your aid in censorship might have real consequences against freedom and as such woudl be immoral.

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