Global Ethics Corner: The Great Firewall of China

Feb 20, 2009

Should foreign companies fudge a commitment to free speech to gain early market access? Is some information better than none, or is censorship a black and white issue?

Rebecca MacKinnon notes that, in China, the Great Firewall involves search engine censorship.

You get different results when you search for "Tiananmen massacre" on Western Google.com or on Chinese Google.cn. Similarly, banned sites pop up as temporary technical errors, and authors of sensitive blog posts are told that "community editors" will get back to them.

The Chinese government worries about online activism moving into the streets, about disorder. They proactively shape opinions online, paying loyalists 50 cents per post for favorable opinions.

Communications companies mediate between people and governments, and censorship presents companies with ethical choices.

Should foreign companies fudge a commitment to free speech to gain early market access? Is shareholder value the company’s single priority? How sensitive are companies to domestic affairs of sovereign states? Is some openness better than none?

Chinese private enterprises are legally responsible for the content their users post, and don't have the luxury of debating these questions.

What do you think? Should there be no censorship, or should countries manage Internet access for the publics’ good? Doesn’t the West monitor for pornography and terrorism? Is censorship a black and white issue, or a continuum?

Adapted from Evan O'Neil's notes on a presentation by Policy Innovations advisor Rebecca MacKinnon

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