On the same day, both The New York Times and The Boston Globe (and perhaps others; Salon had a similar piece a few days earlier) ran lead editorials condemning Microsoft for giving in to demands by the Chinese government that they censor online content within China. The sense of all I’ve seen written on the subject so far has been the same: that Microsoft (and now Google) has a moral responsibility to defend freedom of speech by standing up to the bully Chinese, even if it means losing their lucrative access to the Chinese market. In other words, how dare they put business before principle?
Leaving aside the question of whether corporate leaders have the right to risk shareholders’ money (including my 401k) on such social and political activism, I think those demands are both impractical and unwise. But more to the point, given their histories of hostility both to corporate autonomy and to Western cultural imperialism, I find such demands coming from the likes of the Times and the Globe and Salon ironic in the extreme. I sent this letter to the Globe and a minor variant (an appropriate substitution in the last word) to the Times to point that out. Neither was published.
17 January 2006
Just to be clear: In advocating for Microsoft to defy the Chinese government’s censorship orders and to stand up for free expression in China, you are demanding that an American corporation take it upon itself to disregard the local laws of the community in which it operates. You are demanding that it substitute an American standard of civil liberty and an American vision of proper social regulation for the locally determined political and cultural choices.
I find China’s political and cultural choices appalling and hope that Microsoft and its Chinese customers can find a way to subvert them. But what you are suggesting sounds a lot like…Imperialism!
By what authority is Microsoft, or any other company, to assume that sort of autonomy and power? Having granted them that authority, would you be sanguine about them exercising it in other ways and in other places? Should corporations be free to ignore environmental or tax laws that they find confiscatory and therefore morally repugnant? What about minimum wage and union-protection laws that interfere with freedom of contract?
And would you advocate such an assumption of authority if Bill Gates wished, for instance, to impose some peculiarly Washingtonian vision of proper social behavior on another foreign state ruled by what some would claim is a lesser but nonetheless repressive political order — say a state like Massachusetts?
© Copyright 2006, Augustus P. Lowell