Corporate Responsibility on a Censored Internet


Since 1990 the technology landscape has been dominated by Internet gatekeepers which provide tools like search engines and portals that help users access and navigate the Internet. As Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google have expanded into markets like China or Saudi Arabia they have been asked to support various censorship laws and other online restrictions. Yahoo, for example, signed a self-discipline pledge when it entered the Chinese market, promising to abide by Chinese censorship law. Social media sites like Facebook are likely to face similar censorship requirements in the near future.

Background Issues: The Troubled History Of Google In China

Google, the ubiquitous U.S. Internet search engine company, was founded in 1998 by two Stanford graduate students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Their ambitious goal was to create software that facilitated the searching and organizing of the world’s information. Thanks to its PageRank algorithm the Google search engine delivered more reliable search results than its rivals by giving priority to web pages that were referenced or “linked to” by other web pages.

The company continues to refine its search algorithm so that it can better respond to obscure and complicated queries. Google monetized its technology by licensing its search engine and by paid listings, or sponsored links, that appeared next to web search results.

An Ethical Perspective And Resolution

If the law offers little direction, and there are scant prospects for a significant change, we have a policy vacuum which means that a responsible company can only discern the right course of action through moral and social analysis. Philosophers have been constructing the field of Information and Computer Ethics (ICE) for decades, so what does it have to say about Google’s conundrum?

While much has been written about the Western ideal of speech and the need to curb digital content controls little has been 245 Google in China said about the more complex problem of intercultural ethical disputes with free speech as the focal point. Analysis has been focused on the problem of pornography and what some see as misguided efforts to limit its diffusion in cyberspace either through federal law or through filtering programs.


Given the other priorities of the U.S. government, it is unlikely that there will be major legislation to address the issues delineated here. It’s highly probable that companies will continue to be sued under ATCA for their alleged misdeeds abroad, but these suits will not resolve anything. We may hear more rhetoric from the West about Internet freedom but it will probably fall on deaf ears within the halls of the Chinese government.

This will leave the corporate Internet gatekeepers and social media sites still caught in the crosshairs, perplexed about how to navigate this difficult terrain. Should companies like Google be forced into the de facto role of policymaker dictating the terms of their engagement in totalitarian countries like China? Should they resist helping China or Iran to enforce their laws in cyberspace? Finally, what would be the long-term social and policy implications of helping these countries erect borders in cyberspace?


Many governments have reasserted their sovereignty in cyberspace, and as a result, the Web’s openness and universal character have been diminished. This has created problems for corporations like Google attempting to balance their core values with restrictions imposed by China and other countries. We have looked at the related issues of free expression and corporate liability through the prism of law and ethics.

to jurisdictional constraints, the law offers little guidance for corporations who aspire to be morally responsible and to cooperate at least implicitly with the U.S. policy to maximize the free flow of information over the Internet. Given this policy vacuum, these corporations must fall back on moral reasoning as Google did, grappling with what “do no evil” really means in a context of moral and cultural diversity

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