Headline of the Day: How Google Can Take the High Road on Privacy

Mr. Orwell! Mr. Orwell! Call for Mr. Orwell!

orwellMeanwhile Google played their hand brilliantly. They unveiled OpenSocial taking the “open” high ground and a lot of wind out of Facebook’s sails (to mix some metaphors!). And with Facebook aligned with the old Evil Empire Microsoft, Google has a chance to recover their “Do not be evil” aura.

If they also take the high road on privacy, they will blow the competition out of the water. They can do this because they can afford to; and their competition cannot afford to. They don’t need to amass lots of information about me to serve relevant ads to me. As long as I keep on searching, Google knows my intentions. Sure they could offer something even more powerful if they track and synthesize all my searches in the last 3 months, but at what cost in terms of spooking and alienating me? For what marginal extra value to an advertiser?

So Google could back the “Do Not Track” legislation and comit to more rigorous restrictions on search history.

I’m guessing the high road doesn’t go into China where “Do Not Track” legislation means you’ve been disappeared.

Or, as my good friends at They Might Be Giants, put it:

We’re in a road movie to Berlin
Can’t drive out the way you drove in
So sneak out this glass of bourbon
And we’ll go

We were once so close to Heaven
Peter came out and gave us medals
Declaring us the nicest of the damned

This was all written before I came across the following column by Duncan Riley at TechCrunch: “Yahoo in China: An Unfair Attack”

For those who missed it, in short Yahoo was attacked by both sides of politics for complying with a request under Chinese law, in China, to provide information on a political dissident.

The rhetoric was raw; San Mateo Democrat Chairman Tom Lantos called Yahoo moral pygmies, and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., compared Yahoo’s cooperation with the Chinese government to companies that cooperated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

When it comes to China there are very few who will come to the defense of those who deal with the Chinese Government.

Yahoo’s actions might have been in part wrong morally, but legally they have done nothing wrong, and in a global economy this is even more true.

Mr. Riley misses the one point he might have scored here: That a US congressperson using the phrase “moral pygmy” is the height (and depth) of irony. Congress will take no actions to inhibit the flow of goods and money to China. That is what makes them collectively corrupt, even if individually some may be honest.

Unfortunately Mr. Riley’s statement that although Yahoo! was “in part morally wrong” the company was legally obligated to comply turns an interesting contrarian argument into logical nonsense.

How do we define degrees of moral wrongness?

This isn’t exactly a case of the poor man stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. This is a multinational company placing its profit margin ahead of a person’s life. You can argue that Yahoo has a fiduciary duty to its stockholders not to harm its relationship with the Chinese government. True. This is why companies are run by people. People are supposed to have a sense of proportion and discretion.

Let’s make no doubt that Yahoo’s actions were legally correct — well except for the law that the company appears to have broken here in the US.

That left-wing publication, the Wall Street Journal, reports on what must have been a fascinating meeting between Yahoo’s CEO and general counsel and the wives of two dissidents jailed because of the company’s disclosures.

After Tuesday’s hearing, Messrs. Yang and Callahan met privately with Ms. Gao and Ms. Yu in a room in the offices of the House Committee. According to Ms. Gao, the two apologized profusely for the company’s role in the jailing of Messrs. Shi and Wang, and pledged to put pressure on the Chinese government to release them.

They also discussed a court case in which the women are suing the company, accusing it of breaking several laws, including one which prohibits U.S. companies from assisting in the commission of torture and other human rights abuses in other countries.

So Yahoo was in an impossible situation. No matter what it did it would be breaking someone’s law. Mr. Riley, which law would you have chosen to follow?

I would like to suggest some reading for Mr. Riley. No, not Amnesty International’s report, that would be too easy. How about the State Department’s?

The State Department’s 2006 China human rights and religious freedom reports noted China’s well-documented and continuing abuses of human rights in violation of internationally recognized norms, stemming both from the authorities’ intolerance of dissent and the inadequacy of legal safeguards for basic freedoms. Reported abuses have included arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention, forced confessions, torture, and mistreatment of prisoners as well as severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, privacy, worker rights, and coercive birth limitation.

Then perhaps Mr. Riley could read up on one of my favorite law-breakers: Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul to Lithuania during World War II. Mr. Sugihara became a criminal when he did not follow orders from his government and issued transit visas to escaping Jews. Mr. Sugihara was totally wrong legally. Yep.

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2 thoughts on “Headline of the Day: How Google Can Take the High Road on Privacy

  1. Pingback: Google learns how to say alligator tears in Chinese « Collateral Damage

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