Information & Communication Technology

Google China Decision: ‘Remarkable, Courageous, Far-Reaching’

Commentary, 14 January 2010

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

The global Internet giant Google has taken a remarkable, courageous, and far-reaching decision when it said it would stop censoring its search engine in China.

As Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond explained in a candid blog, Google took the unusual step after it discovered, following internal investigations, that the persistent attacks on its site which targeted personal details of Chinese human rights activists using Google’s email facilities, originated in China.

While Google did not accuse the Chinese government of any wrongdoing, the implication was clear: it was in the interest of the Chinese government to uncover the identity of dissidents, and some hackers in China breached Google’s security architecture.

If you are looking for a parallel, think of the army threatening to enter Hotel Mille Collines in Rwanda to go after people it did not like. Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who protected the civilians was rightly hailed as a hero.

Comparing Google's conduct with such an act is not extreme – to understand how the Chinese treat those who don’t like the government look at many of the fine reports produced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

As Rebecca Mackinon, the Open Society Fellow writing a book on the Internet and China points out in the Wall Street Journal, Google is on "the right side of history", and has shown that it is, in fact, a friend of the Chinese people, though not necessarily of the government anymore.

Google could have opted for the path of least resistance. It could have gone along with the intrusions and kept quiet. It could have issued an apologetic statement offering to establish a dialogue of constructive engagement with the Chinese authorities. Many other companies would have done that, saying they were only following orders, and complying with local laws.

While Google’s response has been polite, it is firm. There is a line it will not cross - it will not do 'evil', as it defines 'evil'. When Google agreed to comply with China’s draconian censorship requirements four years ago, it had faced a real dilemma: its options were to comply or leave China. A spirited internal debate had ensued, and the company concluded that it was better, for the sake of China’s millions of Internet users, to stay and offer an experience as rich as possible, while transparently informing the users that they were not getting the full experience.

It meant posting notices at the bottom of searches – in Chinese – informing them that there were many responses to their search that Chinese regulations prevented it from providing.

Likewise, Google did not offer its popular email and blogging services in China, because doing so would require Google to maintain records of its users, and that would place the company in the difficult position of complying with the Chinese, should the authorities ask Google to reveal the identity of a dissident blogger, or contents of an email list.

Other companies, including Microsoft and Yahoo!, have complied with such requests. Yahoo!’s decision to reveal Shi Tao’s identity led to his trial and detention; Shi Tao had used his Yahoo! account to reveal information China did not like. As Internet expert Andrew Lih points out, Yahoo!’s CEO, Jerry Yang apologized to Shi Tao’s family at a Congressional hearing a few years ago. Meanwhile, Shi Tao remains in jail.

To be sure, China is not alone. Western governments have also asked Internet companies to provide information as part of their anti-terror efforts, and the extent of Internet surveillance in democracies is not known. But in most democracies, non-violent, peaceful protesters, demonstrators, and opposition leaders do not live with the fear that if they say something on the Internet they might get a long prison term, as has happened to bloggers in several countries besides China, including Vietnam and Iran.

China is unique though, because it requires computers to install Green Dam, which would monitor computer usage, and now hackers from China have attacked overseas sites. By penetrating Google’s security, China has changed the rules of the game, taking it to a different level: Google has decided to stop playing, because following those rules or obeying the orders and remaining silent was no longer possible.

This is a momentous move, and Google deserves the praise it has received from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Index on Censorship.

Some observers, such as The Economist, have asked if Google’s move was driven by business reasons (and not ethics alone), and there may be sound business reasons to reduce presence in China – many foreign investors have continued to lose millions of dollars in China, with no profits in sight.

But it borders on cynicism to suggest that sluggish market growth is the sole reason that has driven Google’s decision. Although many companies have spent years losing money in China, few have left the market citing their core principles and values – in doing this, Google has set a high benchmark for companies staying on in China, to follow.

Conventional wisdom suggests that withdrawing from China is foolish. Maybe some investors would threaten to sue Google, because the move may reduce the potential long term value of their investment. (The stock fell slightly last night). But Google has long claimed that it is not a conventional company; if doing no evil is a principle, or value, dear to its founders and executives, it has to walk the walk, and now it is doing just that.

There is a good business reason to act, in fact. Competition is a click away on the Internet. When Google had agreed to comply with China’s regulations four years ago, its credibility suffered. As the world moves towards cloud computing, with more and more people posting sensitive commercial or personal data on the Internet, entrusting their material to companies, trust becomes an important factor; Google could not afford to lose that trust.

If it had continued to acquiesce, Google would have had to become an accomplice in China’s attempts – largely successful – to control its history, and how its people viewed its government. If you searched for "Tiananmen Square protests", "Amnesty International", "Human Rights Watch", "human rights", "Free Tibet", or "Dalai Lama", its search engine could offer only limited results approved by Chinese authorities.

Searching for Tiananmen Square in the regular search engine would show images of the brave young man standing in front of a tank in China; searching for the same term in the Chinese search engine would show flowers and children at the same square. China was erasing its history; Google – and other search engines – were required to play along.

In Salman Rushdie’s novel, "The Satanic Verses," a character says: “Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar!” (yaar being an endearing term for “friend” in Hindi), because it imposes a huge responsibility without the necessary authority on the middleman to interpret the edicts. Google has discovered that being an authoritarian regime’s go-between is not easy either.

This goes to the heart of the human rights debate on complicity: following orders is not always an option. In his latest report, John Ruggie, the UN special representative for business and human rights, has asked companies to undertake “due diligence” including assessing the environment in which they operate, establish policies, take mitigating steps, and operate in ways that respect human rights. Such due diligence would require assessing the impact of a company’s activities, and thereby knowing, or should have known, the consequences of its actions.

While companies should comply with local laws, as Irene Khan, former secretary-general of Amnesty International (and a member of the board of advisors for the Institute for Human Rights and Business) noted in late 2005:

“What can companies do to avoid complicity? What companies must do is to create and maintain a culture of non-complicity in every aspect of their operations. To do so, companies must move towards a culture of compliance with human rights and international standards.” 

As recent research from the International Commission of Jurists shows, there is considerable clarity regarding complicity in human rights abuses. At its simplest, being complicit means assisting a crime. The notion of 'constructive knowledge' suggests that if a company knows, or should have known, of a possible abuse, it exposes itself to the risk of being complicit, if after knowing of that abuse, it continues to aid and abet activities of a perpetrator that lead to breach of law. In simple terms, if a company knows that its product will be used by the other party – state or an armed group, or any other entity – in order to commit an abuse, and if it does nothing, it faces the risk of prosecution.

This is not an idle threat: a businessman in Rwanda has been prosecuted for assisting the armed group, Interahamwe. Another businessman in the Netherlands was sentenced to a long jail term for providing the chemicals which were used by the Saddam Hussein regime to make weapons used against civilians in Iraq. German businessmen have been found guilty in the Nuremberg trial for aiding the Nazi regime.

Had Google chosen to do nothing, it could have faced the risk of a lawsuit from Chinese dissidents under the Alien Tort Claims Act. The merit and admissibility of such a lawsuit is a hypothetical matter; but it would have dealt a blow to the values Google says it stands for.

This is a crucial moment, and poses a real challenge, for the Global Network Initiative, the multi-stakeholder effort which includes Internet companies and civil society groups. The initiative was launched over a year ago, and it created a set of principles to guide the conduct of companies operating in repressive regimes. Many will be watching how the initiative, and the companies that are part of it, will react.

Last year the US Trade Representative had said that Chinese efforts to censor the Internet placed US companies at a disadvantage and therefore it was an unreasonable restraint on trade, possibly violating international trade rules.

Google’s headquarters are located in Mountain View, California, near San Francisco and Berkeley, which was the home of the late Polish-born Nobel Laureate, Czeslaw Milosz, who left Poland because he could no longer face the daily humiliation of living in a closed society. In describing why he left, he often said: “You can eat frogs only upto a point: a time comes when they choke you, and that’s when it is time to leave.” Like Milosz, when Google found it could no longer comply, it decided to leave an authoritarian space. It has returned home, staying true to its values, and its conduct deserves admiration and praise.

Latest IHRB Publications

The Start of Modern Corporate Accountability Efforts - In Memory of Joel Filártiga

It is an unfortunate reality that when human rights defenders speak against their governments, they place themselves at risk of harm. Still, some choose to speak, and in doing so they change the course of history.

Dr Joel Filártiga was one such...

25 July 2019

Human Rights and the Built Environment - A Call for Action

Two-thirds of humanity are projected to live in urban areas by 2050. If we are to make progress in reducing global inequality and in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a rights-based approach to the built environment is critical. 


Rights and Wrongs - Where Does the Buck Stop?

Last week, Bank of America announced that it would no longer lend to companies that run the controversial centres where the United States Government is detaining refugees and migrants who have entered the country without proper documentation  (such...