On Leadership: Views on Google's refusal to continue censorship in China

By On Leadership
Sunday, March 28, 2010; G02

Benjamin W. Heineman Jr. is a business ethics expert and senior fellow at Harvard University's schools of law and government.

Google is not the first company to resolve the conflict between country law and company ethics in favor of ethics. But its highly publicized decision will make companies operating around the globe sensitive to the importance of seeing clearly, before others do, the potential collision of law and ethics and of thinking ahead about how to resolve them in light of company values and stakeholder -- not just shareholder -- pressures.

It will also spotlight companies operating in China and other countries with repressive regimes that take the opposite tack: allowing national law to override the companies' global ethical standards. One example could be Microsoft, whose small search engine, Bing, is trying to gain a foothold in China. Bill Gates is quoted as saying that Microsoft observes the laws of nations where it operates. If so, he hasn't addressed the other side of the equation: important company ethics and values that can trump national law.

As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, Parsa Sobhani is one of 12 Southern California fellows engaged in a graduate-level leadership training program.

I've been Googling Google to see the newest of its many features: a chart displaying its service availability to mainland China in recent days. Google has shocked the business and technology world by "pulling out" of censor-protected China, meaning it is now forwarding users to its Hong Kong servers.

Many characterize the hegemonic power of the tech world by its "do no evil" slogan. However, upon looking closely at Google's initial vision, its founders seek to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." While much of the media point to the former slogan as the basis of the power play, one can see that the self-censorship policy simply doesn't align with their business vision. It is not necessarily a purely political decision. Neither is it about human rights -- it's about the sovereignty to do business.

China's censorship policy conflicts with the Google vision to make information universally accessible and useful. Sure, there are political and human rights implications with the decision. But the company's vision highlights an emphasis on free information: Its business service is a human right. As long as the company remains in line with its vision, politics and human rights will go along for the ride. Ball's in your court, Microsoft.

Jimmy Duong is also a Coro fellow.

Despite the monumental importance of the Olympics for China, neutral entities such as the International Olympic Committee backed down when China broke its promise and restricted Internet access for the media. Google, however, has grown strong enough to actually impose disciplinary actions against the Chinese without direct political ramifications.

When an organization has the capacity and courage to act on values that are fundamental to its operations, its leaders must act or risk undermining the group's purpose and foundations. If Google is an organization that believes in net-neutrality, stands for something greater than itself and wants to continue to be a leader in world affairs, it has no choice but to strengthen its resolve and do no evil.

Former congressman Mickey Edwards is vice president of the Aspen Institute.

When is it right for a company to pursue higher profits even when doing so empowers the oppression of a people and the denial of basic human rights?

Never. Not ever. If any corporate executive finds that he or she is considering putting profit ahead of humanity, it is time for that person to reflect seriously on how and when the moral compass, and one's own claim to humanity, got lost.

Cadet Christina Tamayo is one of a group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions.

All powerful business leaders inherit a responsibility to use their power wisely. Along with the power Google enjoys as the No. 1 search engine comes a responsibility to use its influence and business tactics in an ethical manner. Yes, Google employees are people with families, and business deals affect whether someone will have a job at the end of the month, but you have to know where your loyalties lie as a leader before you face decisions like that of Google vs. China. Are you loyal to the well-being of your employees or that of human-rights-deprived people half a world away?