Microsoft: Just following Chinese orders

Bill Gates & Co. censor a Chinese blogger. What could be more natural?

Published January 5, 2006 6:40PM (EST)

The furor over Microsoft's censorship of a Chinese blogger continues to grow. On Tuesday, Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN journalist and close follower of all things Chinese media-related, broke the news that Microsoft had pulled down the MSN blog of outspoken Chinese journalist "Michael Anti."

Since I subscribe to about a billion China blogs, the news was hard to miss. But Salon had just published a story about American corporate complicity in Chinese censorship and I had already blogged about that, so I declined to join in the hubbub. MacKinnon's a pretty high-profile blogger, so I thought: Word is going to get out. Sure enough, Metafilter and Boing Boing quickly picked up the story, and this morning, a long and detailed piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Even Microsoft's own prominent in-house blogger, Robert Scoble, got into the act, declaring that "the behavior of my company in this instance is not right."

To which, at this point, I have to say: Huh? Since when do we expect American corporations to behave? Have we not been paying any attention at all to the "values" that prevail in the political and economic landscape of the United States? I find it entirely inexplicable: Every time an incident like this happens, a flood of outrage pours out, largely based on the ludicrous idea that corporations such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Cisco are somehow behaving in an un-American way when they give in to Chinese governmental demands. That is, they are shockingly failing to demonstrate the same commitment to free speech and the same opposition to tyranny that Americans supposedly pride themselves on. When, we wonder, will they learn to act more ethically?

I must have missed that fine print in the business plan where ethics is enshrined as a contributor to the corporate bottom line. For most of my entire adult life, American citizens have been voting into office politicians who have made it their lifework to ensure that corporations are free to make as much money as they please, with as little responsibility to behave well toward anyone or anything -- their employees, their environment, the public good -- as they want. And we've got what we asked for: multinational behemoths with no allegiance to anything outside their shareholders.

Remember, Google is considered an odd duck, precisely because the company has declared that its informal corporate motto is "Don't be evil." But even those who think that Google is doing a disservice to its shareholders by eschewing the dark side don't actually believe the company intends to fully live up to that motto, especially if it entails losing market share in China. How utterly absurd! How completely un-American!

Until we demand that corporations start acting like real citizens at home, it's a little hard to expect that they are going to be good guys abroad.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works Microsoft