Google and the Rule of Law

In the Hutong
1647 hrs

Next to a superbly written Clive Thompson piece about Google in China, The New York Times has inserted one of it’s reader forums (“See? See? We can be interactive, too! Aren’t we SO Web 2.0!”):

“Should Google allow China to censor it’s search results?” (Italics mine)

Excuse me?

How about “Should Hai’er allow the U.S. government to regulate working conditions in it’s U.S. factories?”

Or maybe “Should Toyota allow the U.S. government to tax the company on its U.S. earnings?”

Or how about “Should Chinese businessmen be prosecuted in U.S. courts for crimes committed in the United States?”

Come on, people!

As onerous as a law may be, it is the law of the land, and it is applied to foreigners and locals equally. If a foreign company or its shareholders have a problem with that, they can either comply and work to change it over time, or they can choose to do business elsewhere.

How patronising of The New York Times, the supposed bastion of all that is good about the American media, to suggest that a company may choose to ignore local laws at whim. How can the venerable Gray Lady, a staunch proponent of the primacy of rule of law, in good conscience suggest that a major American company scoff whatever laws it doesn’t like and at he same time expect that company to avoid the consequences? China’s leaders must adhere to the rule of law, but Google shouldn’t?

I don’t think the folks at Google are at all pleased with having to comply with this law, any more (and probably less) than Toyota’s CFO is about having a large chunk of its U.S. profits sucked into Uncle Sam’s hungry maw. Frankly, I’m far more ready to believe that Google’s presence and actions in China will make a positive difference for the Chinese people, than I am likely to say the same about McDonald’s or Coca-Cola.

Go ahead and second-guess a company’s decision to do business overseas, particularly in markets where you are uncomfortable with the social costs of doing business. In fact, buy a share (or lots) in that company and make yourself heard as a shareholder.

But do not question the obligation of a company to behave according to the law once its operations begin. Because when you start giving corporations the right to choose those laws with which they will or will not comply, you are setting the world on a slippery slope to a day when the corporation is answerable to no one.