Becker & Posner Blog on Google in China

Pre-eminent legal scholars Gary Becker and Richard Posner jointly write a very smart blog called “The Becker Posner Blog.”

This week, they’re blogging under the title “Google in China,” though they’re actually talking about the whole set of companies recently under fire for their activities in (or regarding) China.

Becker & Posner’s comments are worth reading in their entirety; I won’t try to respond point by point to what they say.

Just a couple of points & highlights:

What’s motivating these companies? According to Posner, “their claim to be altruistically motivated is ludicrous”. Posner’s cynicism here is unwarranted. Motives (individual or corporate) are notoriously difficult to read. Economists (and contractarian philosophers) sometimes “assume” self-interested (or profit-maximizing) motives, but that shouldn’t be taken as an actual hypothesis about what motivates specific individual companies or people: it’s rather an assumption that helps make sense of large-scale patterns of market behaviour or social interaction. Who knows what’s actually motivating Google or Microsoft? The available evidence includes their public pronouncements on the issue (which we might reasonably be skeptical about, I guess), and their history of behaviour. With regard to the latter, I’m slightly less cynical about Google than I am about Microsft. But really, the most sensible thing to say about these corporations’ claim to be altruistically motivated is not that it’s “ludicrous,” but that it’s irrelevant: we can’t really know what motivates a complex organization, so let’s focus on the likely effects of their behaviour (which is what Posner & Becker do, for the most part).

One of Posner’s points that I agree with is that we ought not bundle all of these companies’ activities together in our moral assessment: “There is a difference between censorship and surveillance”, says Posner. (“Censorship” here is a reference to Google’s agreeing to censor certain search results, and “surveillance” refers to Cisco’s selling to the Chinese government equipment that would help monitor dissidents.) I think companies can ethically enter the Chinese market, in at least some areas. But the nature of the product or service has to matter: compare the cases of a company that sells cheese to a repressive regime, and a company that sells them tear-gas.

For his part, Becker focuses on the case of Google, and the net benefit of Google providing even somewhat censored services in China:

…under present conditions [Google is] still providing millions of people in China, we hope that will climb to hundreds of millions, access to an unbelievable array of information. The subjects covered are far too numerous to enumerate, but let me just mention information about DNA and its discovery, medical treatments for breast and prostate cancers, the determination of prices under different market conditions, riots in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Becker-Posner blog, and many more.

Chinese Google users also have access to information that is highly informative about democratic institutions and processes. This includes discussions of elections in Japan, Great Britain, the U.S., the turnover of parties in power in democracies, histories of countries that were transformed slowly, like Great Britain, or rapidly, like Japan, from powerful monarchies to lively democracies. They also have some access to information on the overthrow of communism in East Germany, Poland, and the USSR, although that information is not as openly available as I would like.

In this way Google is still exposing millions of Chinese to information and knowledge that was unavailable to any one in the West even a decade ago. Isn’t this a priceless contribution to the welfare of the Chinese people, despite the restrictions placed on their access to certain subjects from using Google?

So, what Becker is pointing out that the Google’s provision of even censored search results to the Chinese market isn’t making anyone worse off. Further, it’s not denying Chinese citizens any rights that they previously enjoyed. That’s a fairly important point, ethically speaking.

1 comment so far

  1. […] Becker & Posner Blog on Google in China (February 22, 2006) « The FDA, Merck, and Whistleblowing Priorities, Ethics & The Dangers of Coal Mines » LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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