This week, international media reported with some alarm the news that Google is building a version of its search engine for mobile users in China that is designed to restrict information flow by filtering out search terms including human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest. Unfortunately, this development is just business as usual. U.S companies in the IT sector, including Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, IBM, and Intel, have on many occasions cooperated with Chinese authorities in a wide range of areas, such as technical standards setting, hardware and software development, and research.
Complying with Chinese censorship demands is the inevitable result of doing business in China. And Google is not alone in its willingness to trade principles and values for greater access to the huge Chinese market. The string of disgraceful corporate “apologies” to Chinese authorities including toeing China’s global redlines on Taiwan or the Dalai Lama is exhibit A.
But companies must look beyond their expected near-term bottom-line benefits. The operational justification of “complying with local law” must also include compliance with international human rights standards—as part of their due diligence to ensure sustainable and principled business models. If Google wants to be a credible global technology leader and demonstrate its commitment to core values and responsible corporate citizenship, it has to do better than kneeling before an authoritarian party-state. In the long run, Google will lose more than its own principled employees who refuse to be complicit.