With China, Google indeed must do the right thing

With China, Google indeed must do the right thing
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An essential component of Google’s DNA has been its plea “Don’t Be Evil.” In May, Google changed that plea to “Do the Right Thing” — also a worthwhile goal for one of the world’s most influential corporations. However, recent reports that Google is developing a censored search engine at the bidding of Chinese censors is beyond repugnant and reminds us that well-meaning slogans are no substitute for tangible actions. Google’s participation in the Chinese government’s elaborate suppression of free access to the internet would indeed represent “being evil,” and certainly is not the “right thing” to do.

In a 2007 congressional hearing, my father, the late Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, scolded internet executives for being complicit in the arrest and imprisonment of Shi Tao, a Chinese journalist whose only crime was to use the internet to exchange information publicly. These corporate titans, who had provided the information that led Chinese authorities to Shi Tao’s door, defended their actions by arguing that they complied with the laws of the countries where they were doing business. Congressman Lantos’ withering comeback echoed around the world: “While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies.”

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Eight years ago, when Shi Tao was still serving his 10-year prison sentence and the words of Congressman Lantos and other lawmakers echoed in the ears of tech giants, under the stewardship of Sergey Brin, to protest state censorship of the Internet, Google did the “right thing” and withdrew from China. At the time, we applauded Google’s decision to choose individual liberty over censorship and wrote to Mr. Brin, saying, “No action in the last year has done more to advance the cause of internet freedom than Google’s decision to stop filtering its internet services in China.” Valuing people over profits shows leadership, courage, and basic human decency.

 

China is the world’s foremost censor of the internet, having built the notorious Great Firewall and deploying an army of more than 50,000 people to monitor, control and suppress the free flow of information on the internet. However, they are not content merely to deny the Chinese people access to uncensored information. China is a brutal police state that persecutes, punishes and imprisons those who dare to defy authoritarian controls and pierce the veil of secrecy used to maintain control.

Human rights organizations, members of the United States Congress, and millions of Google users and employees have roundly criticized Google’s departure from the values it once represented. The company appears to have traded its reputation as a good global actor for profit. It is putting the corporate bottom line over the rights of innocent Chinese citizens who are continually denied basic freedoms by their oppressive government.

Google’s return to China under these circumstances would represent a repudiation of its motto and inevitably send a signal that China’s appalling behavior is acceptable — and very well could cause a pile-on of other corporate entities putting their profits ahead of people.

In today’s interconnected world, it is more important than ever that we take the role of being “our brother’s keeper” to heart. Whether an individual, a corporation, or a collective group, we must actively participate in being good global citizens who seek to positively influence the lives of individuals around the world and protect their basic human rights. It is not a realistic strategy to rely solely on governments to protect internationally recognized rights and freedoms. Indeed, in a world where billions of people still live under the yoke of repressive and authoritarian regimes, it is vital that governments, civil society actors, and corporations all commit to acting within their spheres to support basic rights around the globe.

We have no doubt that if Congressman Lantos were here today he would admonish Google with the same words he used with tech giants in 2007. As the organization that bears his name and legacy, we call on Google not to act as “moral pygmies,” and rather than collaborate with China in the repression of its citizens, dedicate $10 million annually to support technologies that safely and anonymously circumvent the firewalls behind which the Chinese government holds them captive. Deploying a small portion of its vast wealth to help those imprisoned behind the digital walls of the 21st century would be an affirmative step beyond “don’t be evil” to show that Google actually seeks to “do the right thing.”

Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett is president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, established in 2008 to continue the legacy of her father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos. She is the former chair and vice chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and teaches Human Rights and American Foreign Policy at Tufts University. She currently serves as board co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) and the Budapest-based Tom Lantos Institute.