China blinks

I said in What Would Google Do? – and argued the point in a talk at Google in Washington – that Google and other technology companies have more influence than they know – and should use it – in protecting free speech and pressuring censorious governments. I see evidence of the strategy working – or hope I see it – in China’s decision today to delay its noxious Green Dam requirement for all PCs sold there. Government and companies put pressure on; China blinked.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Carol Bartz, said in July that it’s not her job to fix governments. But neither is it a company’s job to enable tyrannical governments in their tyranny. Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

  • Great post, as usual! Where Google, Yahoo, Nokia, Siemens or any other tech company fails to protect free speech and thereby put pressure governments that would hinder it a hundred other companies will come along to take their place. Freedom sells. Companies need to remember that. Twitter has, even though they’ve nothing but freedom so far to sell.

  • Good points, Jeff. Allow me to play “Devil’s Advocate” …

    If a company’s primary obligation is to it’s shareholders, should CEOs be making decisions which could have a significant financial impact on the company based on geopolitical considerations?

    In some cases, CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) can be aligned with the goals of corporate growth. Andrew Zolli of Pop!Tech gave some examples in a Fast Company article a while back on “Sustainable Capitalism” … But the foundation of these arguments are economical and not ideological.

    Generally, I find the carrot works better than the stick. So while you may be able to shame corporations into what you feel is socially appropriate behavior, there’s nothing more effective then providing “cover” in the form of economic incentive. Though I’m not sure there’s another method other than the threat of economic loss from boycotts.

    I do agree that actions should be driven by the consumer, as I don’t believe the U.S. government should get involved in dictating who private industries could sell to unless they represent a direct threat to our nation’s security or economy. That said, I find it reprehensible that GE would do business with an Iranian regime that supports “Death to America” and I have no qualms about personally boycotting Citgo.

  • In my book Without Warning, I quote Frederick Douglas, abolitionist, 1849. It states:

    Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did , and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong, which will be imposed upon them; and this will continue till they have resisted with either words, or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those who they suppress.

    I believe this quote provides great meaning about the past, present and what to expect in the future. Technology has awakened the tribes and provides transparency. From this, tribes will form and words relayed around the world. Our future and the future of the world will look much different.

    • William Todd

      Great point and a surprising source, for me at least. Douglas seems to be saying that it is in large part the responsibility of the oppressed to overthrow the oppressor. Technology makes this easier although oppressors also have access to technology.

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  • Steven

    Dear Mr. Jarvis,

    I agree wholeheartedly that these companies, their executives, shareholders, and the product users must face the morality of their decisions.

    My one concern with your post is that you do not discuss the patriot act and how the United States government has violated the privacy of its citizens.


    Steven Pirrello

    • How exactly does the Patriot act “violate the privacy of it’s citizens” and what’s the relevance to this discussion? Are you implying that the US government oppresses it’s citizens or that it’s comparable to a facist or dictatorial regime? You wouldn’t suggest that we shut down the Telcos and Banks in the U.S. for their cooperation with the Patriot act, would you?

  • I disagree with you. Let the free market resolve these issues — if you don’t like it, don’t buy from the company. They absolutely have the right to work in other countries, and if that means follow regulations, so be it.

  • Jeff,

    I think it’s a misunderstanding that China blinked because of pressure by governments and companies. That normally has the opposite effect on the Chinese government, something that the Western media still does not seem to understand. In this case the massive negative reactions of the Chinese online were more likely the reason they postponed (or likely canceled) the Green Dam software. A lot of Chinese are actually in favor of limited censorship, but this idea was over the top.

    I don’t think a technology boycott would help either, China is not a third World country anymore that cannot develop technology itself. TImes have changed.

    • Kurt

      I too would be cautious about drawing a straight “action reaction” link. China’s motivations tend to be internal.

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  • Hi Jeff,

    First of all great post. I’ve just arrived this morning back home (The Netherlands) from our backpack adventure through China. During this trip, when i had some time, I’ve red your book WWGD (Dutch translation).
    In China we’ve talked to a lot of people and this is true. For example when there is a demonstration in Hong Kong with 130.000 people they tell on the news in Beijing that it where 30.000 people. Also during our stay we’ve seen some news about Google China being punished for making content (nude) available and that the need to remove it from its database.
    Although all jong people are calling and are on the internet with there phone’s all day they don’t know the famous boy who stop the tanks in Beijing. It’s really odd to here that they don’t know there own ‘real’ history. I think time will change this because off the internet.

    I have another question about your book where can I ask it?

    Thanks in advance,