July 05, 2011

Empowering Evil Through Search and Surveillance: Why Corporate Ethics Matter

Here in the U.S., we've just celebrated our Fourth of July holiday -- Independence Day. It's actually rather complex in nature, a celebration not only of revolution and independence, but also of our foundational documents, the Constitution and the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.

These are remarkable written works from many standpoints. We have not always been true to their ideals. But the men who wrote them were able to create proclamations that have remained relevant for almost two and half centuries, through our evolution from agrarian society to a technological nation beyond the wildest imaginations of virtually anyone living at the time (except, perhaps, my personal hero, Benjamin Franklin!)

The Bill of Rights and Constitution together suggest an ethical path for this country, but no documents, no laws, can successfully legislate ethics or morality. We can ban government interference in free speech, as does the First Amendment, but we cannot assure that freedoms will be wisely used. This is in the nature of laws, men, and women throughout history.

Still, it's difficult not to feel disappointed when our ideals are subverted for commercial gain, and during this past holiday two examples of this were thrust into the media.

As I criticized yesterday, Microsoft has now formally partnered with Chinese search giant Baidu to provide Chinese government-censored English language search results in China.

And now comes word that Cisco will be providing the networking gear for a massive Chinese surveillance system, that will almost certainly be used primarily to target political dissent. Perhaps most alarming in this case is the reaction of Cisco to questions about the ethics of the contract. "It's not my job to really understand what they're going to use it for," was the reaction of Cisco's executive VP in charge of their China strategy.

I know I'm not the only observer invoking the lyrics of the great satirist Tom Lehrer regarding Wernher von Braun in this context: "'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department', says Wernher von Braun." Nor am I the only one who remembers the dark history of IBM's involvement with Nazi Germany in the name of technology sales bottom lines.

A common meme is that corporations are amoral, unconcerned with ethics, uninterested in anything but maximizing profits. This is sadly often true, but certainly is not always the case.

Yes, questions of ethics and business are complex, and different situations may be easily confused.

For example, if a company chooses to do business in a particular country, they must obey that country's laws. They can challenge what they don't feel is appropriate, but ultimately if they don't obey the laws they will very likely be subjected to sanctions of some sort, civil and/or even criminal in nature. And they may be denied access to those countries entirely.

Yet companies can also choose not to extend their products and services into countries where laws and government actions are obviously in conflict with our own ethical considerations. Firms can choose ethics over profits, if they care enough about the former, not just the latter.

And so we saw Google's decision to stop censoring its search results in China -- censorship demanded by the Chinese government -- after a period of compliance during which Google hoped Chinese sensibilities about access to knowledge -- and freedom of speech -- would improve, a test that China unfortunately failed.

Google initially and understandably gave China the benefit of the doubt. Yet China -- and I'm speaking of the Chinese government, not the people themselves -- then chose to be even more belligerent on these issues, not less. Google rightly made the decision that in light of these developments, participation in China's censorship regime was not good for the Chinese people or for Google, and ceased participation. Google made the ethically correct choice, one that should be roundly congratulated.

In light of this, it's difficult to accept Microsoft's new move to not only provide censored search services in China, but to go one giant step farther and actually partner with the Chinese search giant Baidu within the Chinese censorship regime. By this action, Microsoft allies itself directly with the Chinese government's information oppression, and becomes not just a bit player in that regime, but a full-fledged comrade in censorship.

Microsoft can't claim ignorance of China's modus operandi in these regards. Not only the Google experience dealing with China and search, but other recent Chinese activities, have provided concrete examples. So without a doubt, money has won out over ethics for Microsoft when it comes to China. No excuses, no mitigating circumstances.

And similarly for Cisco. Like IBM and their dealings with German National Socialism in the WWII era, Cisco appears to be purposely, directly, and explicitly "averting its eyes" from knowledge of how its technologies will certainly be abused.

It can indeed be argued that our actions as a nation have not always been in keeping with the ideals and hopes of our Founding Fathers. Our government and businesses -- and we the people -- are not perfect. Nobody is.

But the fulfillment of our ideals is ultimately a tapestry of individual actions at all levels, and past mistakes do not justify present or future unethical behaviors.

This applies not only to each of us, but also to our governments, to Microsoft, to Cisco, and to every other corporation and organization.

While Microsoft's and Cisco's couplings with China may reap benefits for their shareholders, these specific dealings are still a fundamental betrayal of ethics, and of our fundamental values -- especially given what we know today about Chinese government behaviors and reactions in these realms at this time.

The Chinese people are not our enemies. And in the long run, a closer relationship between China and the U.S. would be of immense value to both countries. But an ethical path to that goal cannot be reasonably paved with direct U.S. entanglements with the most oppressive aspects of China's government today. An unethical path merely serves to help perpetuate those very abuses that most slow any progress toward our best and finest aspirations.


Posted by Lauren at July 5, 2011 01:59 PM | Permalink
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