05/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Enough is Enough: Corporate Responsibility in China and Beyond

In the wake of Google's announcement on Monday that they were redirecting mainland Chinese users to an uncensored version of search through Hong Kong, there has been speculation about the impact of that action on other U.S. companies operating in China. Now, the world's largest domain name registration company, has announced that it will cease registering Web names to China in response to the Chinese government's new demands for personal information (including photos) about customers. Another registrar, Network Solutions, has also stopped China web registrations for similar reasons.

Given the size of the China market, these are crucial decisions for these registrars and to assume the moves were "caused" by Google's announcement earlier this week trivializes the potential economic and ethical enormity of the situation. A better reading is that the escalating efforts of the Chinese government to clamp down on the Internet is leading companies to think seriously about the limits of their participation. The environment for free expression and privacy in China has steadily deteriorated over the past two years. Significantly, the Chinese government is increasingly asking a wide range of technology companies to help the government implement its systems of surveillance and information control - from computer manufacturers, mobile handset makers, equipment and software producers and internet service providers to (now) domain registrars.

In China, companies face a difficult choice: If companies do not agree to governmental requests to aid in censorship and surveillance, then they risk being denied access to the Chinese market (the largest ICT market in the world). And if companies have a physical presence in China, their Chinese employees might pay dearly for a company's defiance of governmental requests. What is equally clear is that companies do have a responsibility to advance human rights: In her landmark speech on Internet freedom earlier this year, Secretary of State Clinton made clear that both users and the U.S. government are now looking to ICT companies to acknowledge and commit to their role in protecting users: "No matter where you live, people want to believe that what they put into the internet is not going to be used against them."

The Center for Democracy & Technology and many other free expression advocates believe that responsible engagement by companies in difficult markets can potentially, overall, advance human rights and democratic values. When faced with an ethical dilemma, there are a range of decisions and tactics that companies can adopt to mitigate the harm to their users - almost all of which will fall short of pulling out of a country altogether. Avoiding complicity in human rights violations requires constant vigilance and continuous assessment of the human rights risk presented by your business operations, and proactive development of strategies to minimize harm to your users.

At some point, however, even responsible compliance with local law may not be enough to avoid complicity with human rights violations. Companies must ultimately decide for themselves their own level of comfort with how their businesses may adversely impact the rights of users. Google,, and Network Solutions have reached a breaking point with their China business, given the sustained tightening of restrictions in the past two years. And this week's announcements will undoubtedly create pressure on other technology companies to explain exactly how they are addressing the risks posed by their own businesses, given the worsening climate for free expression and privacy - not only in China, but around the world. Will companies engage in a way that legitimizes and perpetuates free speech and privacy violations? Or will companies strive to minimize the harm and advocate for governmental policies that protect human rights instead?

Finally, as I stated earlier this week, it is not a short-term win for the Chinese people to have these companies exit the market, especially since domestic competitors are far more wiling to comply with governmental demands for censorship and surveillance. Whether the Chinese government reconsiders its policies in the wake of these announcements remains to be seen. If China allows access to unfiltered search and enables Chinese users - including students, scientists, entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors ¬- to join their global peers on the open and free Internet, it will be a substantial win for Internet freedom, for the Chinese people, and for China's domestic ICT industry. If China decides to block access instead, it will finally make clear to the Chinese people who is pulling the levers of censorship.

There is already some evidence of intermittent filtering of politically sensitive content going into the mainland. And a leaked memo from China's propaganda bureau on how news coverage and online discussion of the Google decision should be "managed" in order to support the government's message is simply business as usual for China's information control apparatus (though it certainly tickles one's sense of irony). But Google's actions can surely help draw back the curtain and reveal to the Chinese the extent of their government's manipulation of its own people on the Internet and, in doing so, create domestic pressure for real and sustained change.