Free, Not-So-Free

The news that Google has defied a Justice Department subpoena to turn over records of millions of its users’ searches is heartening. Although there is little expectation of privacy under the law in internet use (unlike library usage), that expectation exists among the general public in the United States. We have come to take it for granted that our activities not come under the watchful eye of a Big Brother.

This reassurance is misguided, but it would be wise for the government not to intrude too much into the lives and habits of internet users. Google recognizes this, not necessarily because of some overriding concern for the civic health of its users, but because it recognizes the threat to its profit margins.

Google is a wildly successful company that has seen its stock price soar from an IPO of $180 to $438 as of yesterday’s close. It rightly sees the danger of losing many of its customers if those customers feel the cold gaze of the government peering over their shoulders every time they click on the mouse. Whether this is an unfounded fear or not is beside the point. In the wake of the news of the NSA’s domestic spying, the public is keeping a watchful eye on the government for any sign of an illegal, reciprocating scrutiny. The fact that the Justice Department has asked a federal judge to force Google to comply with its subpoena just adds to the tension. (The Justice Department is seeking the files under anti-pornography laws, intended to protect children. Google is concerned with protecting its customers, while the ACLU is concerned that the law could threaten protected speech.)

While it is laudable that Google seeks to protect its customers in this country, no matter the underlying reasons, overseas things have been quite different, and not just for Google.

In China, where internet and software companies’ eyes boggle at the thought of 1.3 billion potential internet users, consumer protection is less of a priority.

At the request of the Chinese government, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, America Online, and others have all altered the way they do business to satisfy certain censorship laws. For instance, on MSN and Google, the keywords “democracy” and “human rights” are no longer searchable. The jury prize of capitulation to the Chinese government belongs solely to Yahoo, however.

Yahoo cooperated with the Chinese in identifying a man who was sending emails the government did not approve of. He has been sentenced to ten years in prison for his activities. The thought of an American company being complicit in adding to China’s roster of political prisoners, in order to protect its presence in the Chinese market, is a tragedy hard to reconcile with American values. It would seem, in this instance at least, the mighty dollar, or the mighty yuan, has trumped human rights.

Forcing American companies to refuse to cooperate with foreign officials, when local law is on those officials’ side, because of a conflict with American law and ideals, is very difficult from both legal and moral standpoints. We have to respect foreign sovereignty, and engaging in practices that allow others to break a nation’s laws may be unlawful itself. If that were the case, would it be too unreasonable to expect American businesses to take a closer look at where they do business, and if their activities help foster an atmosphere of repression? And if so, if doing business there is worth the human cost?

From a moral perspective, the gut reaction created by the reality of American businesses being complicit in repression, feeding coffers here in the states while some who have little voice in their societies overseas suffer (at the same time protecting Americans from such threats), is a dilemma of the first order. Unfortunately, most businesses do not agonize over this moral dilemma.

Even if these companies’ behavior is not endemic of the way they conduct themselves internationally, the myth that cooperating with Chinese authorities, and thus paving the way for wider, freer internet use in the country (theoretically promoting a freer society) has swiftly been debunked. It is obvious that the Chinese are as adept at patrolling online media for signs of dissidence. This site is acutely aware of the advantages of a society that insists government tolerate dissent, therefore it is a shame to see Americans willingly lead any person in China, or elsewhere, who has a yearning for greater freedoms into the nowhere land of political prisons.

Addendum: January 23, 2006 — Although Google needs to be commended for resisting the efforts of the Justice Department, this article failed to point out that Yahoo, Microsoft, and America Online have all cooperated with the Justice Department in providing similar information. It was an omission that made it appear as if all of the companies mentioned were protecting its users here in the United States, while in reality, among them, only Google has seen fit to stand firm in the face of an overzealous Justice Department.