Google’s move seemed to reconcile its proclaimed libertarian philosophy with its business ethics. However, that reconciliation did not last long: Google, after all, had accepted censorship from the beginning of its efforts in China, in 2006, in order to gain entry into the Chinese market. After six months of life in Hong Kong, money talked: Google reinstated its mainland China service, and with the same level of censorship as before. In the end, Google, not the CCP, lost face.
Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have thus followed a strikingly similar road: Access to lucrative markets trumped ethical anxiety. The tools that they provide are politically neutral. Dissidents try to use them to pursue a democratic agenda. Police use them to detect and repress dissidents. Either way, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google make money — just like, say, IBM, which in the 1930s sold its computing machines to the Nazi regime: The Nazis used these machines to make the destruction of their victims routine and bureaucratic.
Should we be shocked that Internet companies put profits ahead of morals? After all, they are ordinary, profit-seeking corporations, just like the IBM of Adolf Hitler’s era. Internet companies may, more than most, hide their true motives behind ersatz, democratic-sounding slogans, but in the end they are advertising products like any other. In advertising or self-promotion, the choice of words is determined by customer expectations, not by managers’ philosophy, as they mostly have none.
Capitalism is always a trade-off: We must live with unethical behavior by money-making corporations that provide us with useful new tools. These tools can be used by Iranians fighting dictatorship, or by Tibetan dissidents trying to save their culture. They also can be used to compute the number of exterminated Jews, to arrest a Chinese dissident or to break a human-rights group in Russia.
Microsoft in Russia or Google in China teach us that capitalism is not ethical: It is only efficient. Entrepreneurs are greedy by definition: If they were not, they would go bankrupt. An open society will never be created or sustained by righteous entrepreneurs or be the mere byproduct of political engineering. Liberty, as always, remains the endeavor of vigilant, free men and women.
Guy Sorman is a French philosopher and economist.
Copyright: Project Syndicate