By Richard Cohen
The charm of businessmen in general is not only that they lack irony, but because they took business courses in college, they lack basic knowledge. That explains why they unknowingly suggest Anatole France, who in 1894 wrote, The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. In somewhat less literary language, Microsoft has just said the same thing.
The speaker of this unintended echo of Anatole France was Brooke Richardson, a group product manager (whatever that is) for Microsoft. She was responding to inquiries about the companys decision to help shut down a Beijing blogger at the request of the Chinese government. Microsoft does business in many countries around the world, Richardson explained. While different countries have different standards, Microsoft and other multinational companies have to ensure that our products and services comply with local laws, norms and industry practices. In other words, Microsoft follows the law in America and it follows the law in China -- never mind that there really is no law in China.
Yahoo is similarly evenhanded. When the Chinese government asked the company who among its many users was sending out certain embarrassing e-mails, Yahoo provided the name -- Shi Tao -- and he is now serving a 10-year prison term at what amounts to hard labor. He works at a prison jewelry factory, cutting and polishing stones, and reportedly suffering from the dust produced. According to the organization Reporters Without Borders, at least 32 journalists and 62 cyber-dissidents are currently in prison in China.
Yahoo, of course, explains its actions the same way Microsoft does -- or, I suppose, as does Cisco Systems, which produces the equipment with which the Chinese censor the Internet: just following local custom. Maybe they have something of an argument since American tech companies have supposedly cooperated with the National Security Agency in the current effort to overhear international phone calls -- a program disdaining court-issued warrants or congressional authorization. Still, there remains a vast difference between American-style illegality (if it amounts to that) and its Chinese equivalent. The law in China is what the Chinese leaders say it is. Currently it is illegal to post information on the Internet that creates social uncertainty. Try defining that.
The Internet may be new, but not the issue of whether an American corporation should do business with bad people. Many an American fortune was based on the slave trade or exploitation of the Indians or some such atrocity. According to allegations in a recent book, IBM did business with Nazi Germany and, more recently, a good number of U.S. corporations helped the old apartheid regime in South Africa with its security concerns. Capitalism has always been amoral, eschewing moral considerations for the only one that counts: Will the check clear?
Still, the panting willingness of American firms to do business in China has produced a bumper crop of hypocritical justifications. The first one, as noted, is that silly stuff about adhering to local laws everywhere in the world. The second is the contention -- the slim hope, actually -- that by helping China with its Internet or whatever, we wonderful Americans are also encouraging the growth of a middle class and a concomitant interest in the writings of Thomas Jefferson. In the meantime, the use of such terms as human rights or Dalai Lama in the title of a blog entry is not possible with the MSN blog tool. In China, a typo can cost you plenty.
Clearly, if the Chinese market was tiny, Americas high-tech companies might not be willing to snitch on their customers and help send them to jail. But the market is vast -- an astounding 1.3 billion people, 103 million of them already on the Internet. (The U.S., with 203 million users, is about maxed out.) Hard to turn down, it seems. Much better to cooperate in censorship and, if need be, the occasional jailing of some dissident. Business is business, after all.
But just as public pressure was brought on American companies that helped South Africa subjugate its own people, so should pressure be brought on the current crop of moral dunces. This is particularly the case with companies like Yahoo, who finger users so that they can be arrested. Corporations are legal fictions, an abstraction that lacks a conscience. The men who run them, though, are flesh and blood -- like Terry S. Semel, Yahoos CEO. This week he reported healthy gains. Alas, he did not report the loss of a single nights sleep.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group