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Ethical leadership

[Cross-posted from “weaverluke]

Rebecca MacKinnon writes impassionedly about Robert Scoble's defence of his company Microsoft's collusion with the Chinese government to filter politically sensitive words out of the Chinese version of MSN Spaces:

In justifying Microsoft's filtering of politically sensitive Chinese words on MSN spaces, Microsoft's uber-blogger Robert Scoble writes:

“I have ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS forcing the Chinese into a position they don't believe in.”

He continues:

“I've been to China (as an employee of Winnov about seven years ago). I met with Government officials there. I met with students. I met with professors. They explained their anti-free-speech stance to me and I understand it. I don't agree with it, and I will be happy to explain to anyone the benefits of giving your citizens the right to speak freely, but it's not my place to make their laws. It certainly is not my right to force their hand with business power.”

I lived in China for nine years straight as a journalist, and if you add up other times I've lived there it comes to nearly 12. I don't know what students and professors Scoble met with, and what context he met them in. But to state that Chinese students and professors have an “anti-free-speech stance” is the biggest pile of horseshit about China I've come across in quite some time. And believe me, there are a great many such piles out there these days.

In my experience, most Chinese, like all other human beings I've ever met, would very much like to have freedom of speech. This goes for students, professors, workers, farmers, retirees, religious practitioners, and even many government officials. Many said so to me in on-the-record interviews. Many more told me so privately, in trusted confidence over beers (or something stronger) among friends. 

What they don't want is to lose their jobs and educational opportunities by pushing too hard at the restrictions their government has placed on their ability to speak. They work within the bounds of the possible, and since people in China can say a lot more now than they were allowed to say 20 years ago, most take the long-term view.

It's very true, most Chinese hate it when foreigners lecture them about how they should change. They hate being patronized. Many view the common American attitude of “we're here to save you and make you free” as condescending and hypocritical. They'd rather continue living under their extremely imperfect political situation in hopes that eventually it will change, and that this change will be accomplished by Chinese people in a Chinese way. Only then will they have ownership both of the change and of the result. Otherwise, the change will be considered foreign-imposed, and the Chinese violently detest foreign-imposed anything. Even ones who privately and quietly detest their government.

I agree with Scoble: no outsiders, including Microsoft, can force China to change. But nobody's asking Microsoft to force China to do anything. The issue is whether Microsoft should be collaborating with the Chinese regime as it builds an increasingly sophisticated system of Internet censorship and control. (See this ONI report for lots of details on that system.)  Declining to collaborate with this system is not “forcing the Chinese into a position they don't believe in.”  Declining to collaborate would be the only way to show that your stated belief in free speech is more than 空: empty words. If you believe that Chinese people deserve the same respect as Americans, then please put your money where your mouth is.

But let's not single out Microsoft for trashing on this point. As this Open Net Initiative report and this 2004 Amnesty International report will make abundantly clear, China's filtering, censorship, and surveillance systems wouldn't be what they are today without lots of help from a number of North American technology companies.  Businessman and author Ethan Gutmann wrote about Cisco's particular contribution in this 2002 article which later became a book chapter.

In the name of free enterprise, Americans so far have acquiesced in U.S. companies’ collaboration in the building and reinforcement of the Great Chinese Firewall. The Global Internet Freedom Act is being revived again in congress; but while the Act would allocate money to develop censorship-busting technologies, it makes zero mention of the U.S. companies whose technologies and software services are helping to strengthen this very censorship.

Scoble says it's better to be doing business in China than not, implying that this engagement is better for China and its freedoms in the long run. Don't get me wrong, I believe strongly in economic engagement with China. But nobody said Microsoft shouldn't be doing business there. It's a question of how you do business and in what manner.

I can tell you one more thing about the Chinese. They hear what you say, then they watch how you do business. From there, it's pretty easy to figure out what your real values are.

I couldn't agree more with Rececca's analysis. Microsoft is showing the same kind of failure of ethical leadership here (albeit on a rather larger scale and with potentially more damaging consequences) as coffee bar chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee do in their refusal to match their Fairtrade posturing with a sales strategy designed to actually give people a straight choice between Fairtrade and “Unfairtrade” options at the counter.

In both cases, the companies in question are effectively saying “of course, we're in favour of the ethical outcome (free speech and Fairtrade respectively), but it's not our job to recommend that outcome to our customers (the Chinese government and coffee drinkers respectively). So long as they can make out that they are passive in the un-ethical decision, these companies feel that they have “done enough”. Well, that isn't enough for me—I want to deal with companies like Progreso, who have the commitment to an ethical vision to actually work with their customers and partners to seek to transform the status quo for the better.

And Microsoft, through Kim Cameron's visionary work on an inclusive and open digital identity meta-network that respects each individual human being's freedom of self-representation, now has an opportunity to transform itself into one such company.

1 comment

  • There is no doubt that President Robert Mugabe has turned his country into his personal business.
    There is also no gain saying his leadership has lost touch with the realities of our time,But
    The point one is trying to make here is that,If half of the coverage given to Mugabe and his cohorts by the western media is directed towards covering the ills of other African governments
    I strongly beleive we all will be better for it.
    Take for example this issue of house demolition carried out by Mugabes government in recent weeks
    the western media mainly the CNN and BBC has echoed and re-echoed it,But, at about the
    same time that Robert Mugabe was causing this havoc to his country men and women
    President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria was inflicting more havoc to his country men
    and women.Obasanjos government have rendered (and is still rendering ) tens of thousands of people homeless in Abuja under the very eyes of both the local and international media yet no one care
    to make mention of it in the western media, no coverage whatsoever have be given to it.
    And if i may ask,What is Jeff Koinange doing in nigeria? playing Chess i presume.

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