Free Speech?

Lately Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, have been looking glum. A glance at the news will show that the large tech firms have been receiving negative publicity in response to their decisions to cooperate with the Chinese government by censoring material deemed inappropriate for public consumption. Each of them noted that they merely complied with the local laws and did nothing wrong, so what is all the fuss about? Free speech?

Businesses are responsible to adhere to their mission statements, abide by the laws that apply to them, and make profits for their investors. Their very presence can yield significant political influence, but corporations are not government agencies. What impression would be made upon investors if a company voluntarily turns down a lucrative opportunity in a market such as China on account of free speech?

Investors would have to consider the impact such a decision would have upon the outlook of the company compared with competitors and decide whether to buy, hold, or sell the stock. This is a simple process, but the power of it comes from the sheer force of numbers. For instance, a company such as Google can easily see three billion dollars worth of investments moving to and fro within the duration of a typical trading day. The quality of courage needed as a corporate decision-maker to face a blazing torrent of cold cash and explain how an opportunity is turned down due to matters of conscience is beyond my experience.

If the U.S. government felt that “Big Tech” ought to have made different choices regarding China then some guidelines should have been set in place beforehand. The censorship policies of China are no secret and it is not the only country in the world that censors material on the Internet. The U.S. government has had plenty of time to address the issue, yet committees and task forces are widely publicized when Big Tech cooperates with Chinese censorship policies. With that in mind, I find it distasteful to read of Congressmen like Tom Lantos getting their sound bytes of how terrible Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! have been.

Large firms such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! cooperated with China to censor the Internet in pursuit of new markets and opportunities, so what has the U.S. government done to address free speech before the media blitz? Perhaps some lawmakers should accept responsibility for allowing the matter to develop out of hand before offering opinions.

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One response to “Free Speech?

  1. That all said, a question that needs to be answered is: How will these committees and task forces encourage other countries to uphold principles of free speech? If these government bodies produce guidelines for domestic corporations to adhere to while operating abroad, one possibility would be to restrict them from cooperating with state censorship policies. However, doing so will likely earn the ire of local officials and may be no different from telling companies to refuse to do business with states that practice Internet censorship. It is unlikely the U.S. government would issue such instruction to Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo!, since they are few among many U.S. based companies that possess investments in China. What could the reaction be if the U.S. did instruct its domestic businesses to refrain from cooperating with Chinese censorship policies? I can’t say, but it does raise one more matter out of curiosity: Will this be seen as an opportunity by U.S. officials to introduce some measure of extraterritoriality within Chinese markets?

    Also, what about other forms of state censorship? Newspapers, radio stations, advertising, and plain public discourse? It’s impossible. From the outset of the media blitz, this matter clearly has more to do with the U.S. and China than free speech.

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