Doing Business With Autocracies
In a recent blog post, my colleague, Tom Rossi, said that corporations are in existence solely to make money, not to better our society. I was thinking of this when I came across an article in the New York Times about American companies enthusiastically doing business with China, and in particular, collaborating on projects that provide effective tools to quash protests and free speech.
Here are a few examples:
– Cisco Systems (among others) are creating the biggest police surveillance system in the world through a government contract in the city of Chongqing.
– Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, still censors searches in China. Earlier this month, it agreed to provide search results in English for Baidu, China’s leading — and heavily censored — engine. This is taking place 18 months after Google, to avoid aiding the government with such censorship, pulled its search engine out of China.
1) Shi Tao sits in prison for a 10 year sentence after Yahoo provided copies of his emails to the government.
2) In May of this year, Cisco was sued by Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong who accused the multinational of abetting the Chinese government through the creation and maintainable of the so-called Golden Shield system. This surveillance system targets and then follows dissidents communicating online, which has led to the detaining and torturing of Falun Gong practitioners.
Cisco took issue with the accusation. The company claims that it does not design it’s programs or equipment to aid the government censor content, intercept communications or track users. It sells the Chinese government standard-issue general network equipment.
In fairness, some of the multinational corporations did begin to take steps after Yahoo’s debacle regarding its role in Shi Tao’s arrest and conviction. Yahoo, Microsoft and Google joined in the Global Network Initiative which tries to create guidelines to protect “the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression.”
But these commitments are voluntary. Should the government take a role in clearly setting boundaries? It happened following the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre when companies were barred from selling such technology. Quite rightly, it has been pointed out that effective anti-spam and hacking technology could be adapted to aid repressive regimes.
One executive from Hewlett-Packard, who are bidding for a stake in the Chongqing surveillance project told The Wall Street Journal: “It’s not my job to really understand what they’re going to use it for.”
Really? Is there no responsibility beyond the profit line? Coming from a multinational, probably not. As stated at the beginning of this article, this is their sole reason to exist.
Which is why, if the United States truly sees itself as the leader of world freedom, it needs to create not guidelines or principles, but laws preventing American technology helping totalitarian regimes. However, we may discover that while our government cannot even get these companies to pay their taxes, they might have little power over such huge economic conglomerates and their powerful lobbyist allies.
And that is even scarier.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).