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Google and ethics abroad

Alan Braunholtz

Google recently jumped into the news as it decided to open a version of its site in China that will censor certain pages unappealing to the Chinese government. Google also refused to allow the US government access to search data here. This prompted cries of self-serving hypocrisy, but those shouting the loudest are often big cheerleaders for free enterprise, so they should understand.Refusing to allow the Chinese to censor pages would preclude Google from the world’s largest growing market. Allowing the U.S. government to invade the privacy of users would hurt its market here. From a business point of view, Google is being consistent.What about ethics then? Utilitarian ethics can be seen as what is most good for most people. Google is compromising its principles, but what will Google-China do for the Chinese people that they don’t have now? Though it removes web pages that attack the Chinese government and promote democracy, it at least lets its users know when a page is blocked – something other search engines don’t do. Google won’t offer e-mail or blogs as these will be seized and used against their users in places like China. Seen in this light Google’s move to China will allow Chinese users a lot more and better information than the current search engines there.This is what ethical critics have to consider when looking at our business dealings with repressive and murderous regimes. It’s too easy to change any debate by crying “self interest” and then avoid the original question altogether. Merely because someone will gain from a course of action doesn’t make it wrong. It’s a too-common illogical argument these days. A politician criticizes the government and it’s dismissed by a spokesman as “just political posturing” – well duh! Politicians do try to influence politics and public opinion – it’s their job. This dismissal says nothing at all about the validity of that criticism though- it avoids the issue entirely.The Olympic flame will next appear in China. Should it? The Chinese government will gain in standing etc., but it promised the International Olympic Committee to work towards reforms and generally to being a nicer government. Will it? Probably not as much as hoped, and the IOC will try to ignore all the human rights violations to save face. Even so, the Olympics will probably have a positive effect as there’ll be so much exposure to people of other nations and the huge influx of media will force an easing of restrictions.The Eastern Bloc nations put an awful lot of effort and national pride into their sports teams to prove how great their system was. The USSR’s dominance of the Olympics didn’t prevent its collapse, though. Perhaps all the travels of its athletes and their return with tales of foreign countries and visions of a better nation for themselves helped in the decline and fall of the Eastern Bloc. It’s a nice irony if true.Compare these two much-criticized forays into China to oil developments in Chad. ExxonMobil led a group of business interests to develop Chad’s oil fields. They needed the World Bank aboard as a guarantor and insurance against the political risks for other players to join in. The World Bank is a development agency supposedly aiming to reduce global poverty. How does a big export oil project in a corrupt and oppressive country help the poor?The World Bank insisted on a law that oil revenues go toward social programs and funds for future generations. Not too surprisingly – now that the infrastructure is completed – the government of Chad announced it isn’t going to honor its agreement with the World Bank or the law. It prefers to use the revenue to suppress internal dissent [code word: security] and build up the military on its border with Sudan who it has some disputes with. On our way to another oil financed war!The non-governmental organizations in Chad asked the World Bank not to take part until Chad had shown the necessary democratic and legal reforms, which would allow the poor people in Chad to benefit from the development – i.e., get the horse ready to pull the cart first. Instead, the people of Chad are worse off (in terms of life expectancy and the UN’s development index), their environment is getting trashed, there’s now a greater chance of the civil war between the Christian south and Muslim north reigniting, and their country’s oil wealth is disappearing. It’s all to benefit the country’s ruling elite, ExxonMobil, Western arms manufacturers and our high-energy lifestyle.While the argument “the poor can’t wait” is a strong one, it seems that without a government infrastructure and laws that represent the poor, waiting will be their best option. Without this infrastructure, industrial development is little more than the vacuuming off of what natural resources they have for the benefit of ourselves and the corrupt Judases who betray their own people for 30 pieces of silver.Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is no saint, but the poor in Venezuela admire his refusal to allow his country’s oil wealth to benefit only a rich cabal who thought the country exclusively theirs.If we criticize Google for making money in China, we should be at least equally critical of the ExxonMobil consortium and the World Bank in Chad. Both probably went in with motives of self-interest and the common good. Google’s seem to be justified, while the benefits of Chad’s oil boom failed to materialize – predictably so if the World Bank had only listened to the NGO’s in Chad and/or looked at its own Extractive Industries Review for guidance.When arguing over issues, it’s not the motivations but the predictable results that matter. Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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