A few weeks ago, I criticized Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco for cooperating with evil, because each of those companies assists the Chinese suppression of dissent, in order to be able to make money from the lucrative and growing Chinese market. Some apologists for the companies replied that, even though the companies were assisting repression and making it more efficient and pervasive, the companies were somehow encouraging the long-run development of freedom in China.
Today, the Financial Times reports on a letter which a leading Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, has sent to Yahoo. Having spent time in prison for speaking the truth about China's ruling Communist Party, Liu "says Yahoo has enough market clout not to need to toady to authorities." He explains the corporate-communist deal: coporations make profits at the expense of human rights; the communists are given Internet control, and new means to squelch dissent. Thus:
"The collusion of these two kinds of ugliness means that there is no way for western investment to promote freedom of speech in China, and that in fact it greatly increases the ability of the Communist party to blockade and control the internet," he writes.
"You are helping the Communist party maintain an evil system of control over freedom of information and speech," he writes.
Simply put, there appears to be no way to be an ethical Internet company in China today, just as there was no way to be an ethical supplier of spy equipment to the USSR or Nazi Germany. Corporations are generally supposed to maximize their profits, but there is a point at which a particular form of profit maximization becomes unethical. It's ethical for companies to make barbed wire, but it's not ethical for the company to sell barbed wire to a regime which the company knows will use the barbed wire to build concentration camps.
The American Internet companies which do business in China are assisting the creation of the world's most sophisticated architecture of repression. No company should make profits at such a terrible cost to human rights. After American companies left, the Chinese tyrants would undoubtedly find other, inferior, foreign companies to provide Internet services and assist with the suppression of liberty. It would be better, though, if China's architecture of repression were built by inferior, less efficient companies, rather than by the best minds of the world's best computer companies.
If expelled from China, an ethical company could further assist human rights by setting up major offices in free Taiwan.