Activist investors and the companies behind China’s cybernanny

The CSM tells us of investors who are trying to force the companies providing China with Internet surveillance, censorship and tracking software to insist on human rights assurances, even if it means standing up to the government.

One of the favorite and most convenient excuses for cooperating with governments like China’s and Burma’s is that the companies are simply complying with local laws. But that’s not good enough, activists say.

[C]ritics of such policies say local statutes shouldn’t be a company’s sole consideration. “When a government asks you to censor your portal, do you do it because that’s local law, or does another standard apply?” asks Adam Kanzer, legal counsel to Domini Social Investments. “A lot of companies feel, ‘We have to have a presence in China and have to play by their rules,’ but I think that’s a little naive…. China needs them as much as they need China.” That dynamic, he says, allows room for firms to negotiate terms that could potentially usher in new freedoms for Chinese citizens.

What’s more, Mr. Kanzer says, companies furnishing firewall tools must recognize that ethical responsibilities shift when the client is a government, not a private business. When companies such as Cisco Systems or Secure Computing equip governments to keep their citizenries off certain websites – especially dissident political ones – he says, “it becomes a human rights violation.”

It’s a long article and I won’t try to summarize it all. The closing paragraphs capture the essence of the arguments:

For Internet businesses, however, a looming question remains: How much short-term business is worth sacrificing in order to champion an open Internet and human rights to self-expression in the long term? It’s a question sure to be answered in locations across the globe, one thorny dilemma at a time.

“There is a competitive disadvantage to being based in a country like ours, where we have the civil liberties that we have,” says John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. American investors, he says, expect the companies whose stock they own to “at least not participate in a regime or make money off a regime that is sacrificing the liberties of someone else.”

I wish more American investors were asking such questions. Unfortunately, i suspect most just don’t give a damn and prefer to wallow in sublime ignorance.

Thanks to the reader who sent this to me.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

Damn handsome reader he is

December 20, 2005 @ 6:40 am | Comment

is it useful if we raise this kind of moral problems to the investors in wallstreet?
maybe only the investors, have the power to blame those greedy entrepreneur.

December 20, 2005 @ 6:14 pm | Comment

Of course, what is the real alternative? There is none. China, which presently is the Party, is not going to change its policies to please an overseas corporation. And, we are talking about the technology pirate of the world. It would be nice to see Google and other’s taking a principled stand, however the end result is going to be lost revenues. One way or the other, China will get the technology. Investors, not all of whom are Americans, are liable to measure the shortfall in profit far more heavily than any substantive return from an attempt at coercive investment, however right and noble the cause.

December 20, 2005 @ 7:50 pm | Comment


December 29, 2005 @ 9:00 am | Comment

[…] Chinese people will need to make happen, though I will keep urging them on from the sidelines. And just as in the good old days, I still decry the foreign companies who got rich making the technology possible. This insidious […]

January 6, 2009 @ 7:42 pm | Pingback

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