Tuesday, October 25, 2005

IHT.com - Yahoo in China: Rising tide of anger

I had great fun doing this motion because it's one of those debates that span over a huge range of topics. Off hand, there's fundamental human rights. Then there's the law bit, expecially that of operation in another jurisdiction. And finally this big umbrella of the reponsibility of a corporation i.e. how far does it responsibility lie? Does it extend to civil disobedience?

Let's start with the broad principle of Human Rights first. It is generally accepted that free speech/expression is a fundamental human right i.e. one that is automatically accorded and shall not be derogated except when the state can show compelling interest. Generally this would be taken to mean some form of harm to persons or another fundamental right itself.

The freedom of expression/speech is considered fundamental because without it, other freedoms like the freedom of though is rendered impotent. When you silence speech, you silence dissent, you stiffle thought, you stiffle opinions, you deny the individual his individuality. This was what the colonist and imperialist did also everywhere they went (if they did not coopt the locals of course).

So given it's importance, is China justified in imposing restrictions on the freedom of speech? In short, apologists for China are likely to argue that given the social instability that China is currently facing, a clampdown on speech and dissent is the only viable method of ensuring social peace. I have some sympathy with this argument. However I believe that such speech acts as a vent and prevents the more violent outbreaks of public disturbances and riots when people think they are heard and that something will be done about it.

Assuming that it is indeed bad, then what? Now the natural lawyers will argue that there's a higher law and that given the maxim, Lex Injusta non est Lex (an Unjust law is not Law), go ahead and disobey it unless the disobedience creates a greater social disturbance. Positivists will argue that the law is the law. BUT at the same time that does not mean that it a morally justified law.

Which brings us neatly to the issue about foreign legal jurisdiction. The problem is, whilst you can permit ('enforce') free speech within your own jurisdiction and you can break your own laws if you don't like them, these companies are foreign ones operating in a local jurisdiction. To take a local example, the call for academic freedom by Warrick as a precondition to setting up shop here was called as a call for extra-territorial rights in the class. Which is techinically true I suppose but my opinion is that it is 'extra-territorial rights' insofar as NUS is not subject to the ban on screening uncensored videos and movies and then student taking modules can watch what might otherwise be illegal for them to watch. Besides, they were asking for nothing more than what most other universities already have. And the fact that it is not permitted to set up a GLT advocacy group on campus speaks loudly about what constitutes tolerance over here. To take a foreign example, Yahoo backed down and gave in to the French authorities and prevented French citizens from entering auctions with Nazi memorabilia. And this was despite it being legal from where Yahoo was stationed i.e. America. Now I absolutely grant that there's a fundamental distinction between the restrain of speech and trade in France in contrast to the China example, but a company IS subject to the laws of the nation they operate in.

But what makes this issue more difficult is that not everyone agrees that Human Rights are universal. So while we can all generally agree that we would castigate a company for gross violations of Human Rights i.e. helping to kill an ethnic minority, I think short of actual loss of life, not everyone would similarly agree that the loss of a right to speech or simply the inability to read about the Democracy and the Falungong is 'bad' enough that Yahoo and the other companies must back off. And well, we do do business with Myanmar on the basis of constructive engagement so it's hard not to look a little hypocritical.

Further complicating matters is the extent of the 'cooperation' of these companies and the repecussions of their actions. For example, the company doing the most to aid China with its censorships is probably Cisco. The routers they use can block up to 200,000 individual I.P. addresses and are sophisticated enough to block individual pages and sub-pages of a root directory. So you can go to say the Stanford University Page but you can't access the Falungong page there. Microsoft, like Yahoo, simply blocks the use of certain words like democracy on their blog space. But what Yahoo recently did was to basically give up the identity of one of email users leading to his arrest. So while I think China has its own agency to track users, I'm not entire certain the level of aiding and abetting these MNCs do for them. And while I certainty sympathise with the arrested person, one can't help but think about why the hell he didn't simply use an anonymiser or an anonymous email address.

So finally we come to the roles, responsibilities and duties of a corporation operating on foreign ground. I'm generally of the opinion that the only duty a company has is that of profitability. Since so many things affect the profitability of a major company nowadays, I'm confident that a company that focuses on profitability will turn out a good corporate citizen. After all, profits are just about the short-term. Building a good long term relationship is important, not just with your suppliers, but your customers, your clients and your employees. Which company can sustain growth with a high personel turnover? Brands and the rise of NGOs will also ensure that they behave themselves. And heck, even the government is now piling in to legislate the duties of a company. And if not obeying the law means your share price suffers, I'm not certain that we are protecting Free Speech is going to fly during the Annual General Meeting.

And I'm really not comfortable with the concept of a corporation being a promoter of Human Rights. Should that not be left up to the grassroots and NGOs, and various heads of state and IGOs to handle? Yes, Corporate Social Responsibility means giving back to the society that feeds you and not harming the environment etc. But I don't believe that they necessarily extents to protecting human rights. Especially when you are more than likely to get screwed over by the country you're in. And we're talking about China here.

Which brings us to this whole notion of unintended consequences. Does China need these companies more than they need China? China does have its own software industry. They can always get more from other countries who don't share the same belief in Human Rights. And lest we forget, this was the country that made Microsoft back down and made it give up some of its access to its precious source code on the simple threat of ignoring it and going for its competitors. That's how powerful China in this sense of having a huge market is. I don't see how individual companies will be able to stand up to it. Deny China what it wants and they'll just switch to another source. Unless of course, there's some super consortium of MNCs that can speak with one voice, but in which case, we'll have people like Naomi Klein jumping up and down screaming about the new government of the world.

And there's also the possibility that by engaging and acceeding to China, one stays their iron fist on the pro-democracy movement and dissidents. But it's an argument that's purely speculative and besides, there's no reason why the iron fist can't co-exist with the cooperation.

Anyway, do read the article, it's full of punchy quotes and the bias is for the other side. Read it for balance if you know what I mean.


p.s. I was going to write more but I'm about to run late for a meeting.



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