Peter Singer on Microsoft in China

Peter Singer (the Princeton University philosopher who is the leading modern advocate of utilitarianism) recently posted the following short article on Microsoft’s compliance with China’s censorship of citizens’ blogs: Fear and Freedom on the Internet.

Earlier this month it was reported that, at the request of China’s rulers, Microsoft shut down the Web site of a Chinese blogger that was maintained on a Microsoft service called MSN Spaces. The blogger, Zhao Jing, had been reporting on a strike by journalists at The Beijing News that followed the dismissal of the newspaper’s independent-minded editor.

Microsoft’s action raises a key question: can the Internet really be a force for freedom that repressive governments cannot control as easily as newspapers, radio, and television?

In particular, Singer is critical of 2 of Microsoft’s claims:
1) Microsoft has claimed that censoring in China is necessary in order to comply with local laws; but Singer points out that the computers on which the relevant blogs were stored were in the U.S., and thus not subject ot Chinese law;
2) Microsoft’s Bill Gates argues that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, & that Microsoft is (likewise) willing to limit, say, or child pornography. Singer argues that child pornography itself does not “express ideas,” so it cannot be subject to the kind of “freedom of expression” that we all value so much. In China, however, what’s being suppressed is the ability to express a range of views and opinions. So, the child porn example is a red herring.

Singer’s conclusion:

In any case, China’s crackdown on straightforward reporting and discussion of events taking place in that country is not the suppression of a discredited political ideology, but of open and informed political debate. If Bill Gates really believes that the Internet should be a liberating force, he should ensure that Microsoft does not do the dirty work of China’s government.

I think Singer’s argument seems roughly right, as far as it goes. But it only goes so far, and I think that’s less far than Singer imagines. Singer’s argument supports the conclusion that there is something bad about Microsoft’s actions. Namely, it is a bad thing for a company to help a government suppress free expression on important issues. But Microsoft might even admit as much, without admitting that they’ve done anything wrong. (That seems to be Google’s rationale for its agreement to censor search results on its Chinese site.) The question is whether companies like Microsoft and Yahoo and Google are doing more good than harm, overall, by entering the Chinese market (and doing the things that are necessary to stay in that market). Now, in focusing on the balance of harms & benefits, I am not implying that only outcomes matter; I only mean that this is a complicated moral question, the resolution of which requires that we balance rights and freedoms, harms and benefits, short- and long-term effects, etc.

(One last note: Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have all stated or implied that the practices for which they’ve been criticized have been necessary in order for them to enter & remain in the Chinese market. Such claims always warrant very careful examination. Sometimes convenience masquerades as necessity.)

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