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Searching For Answers: Ethical Considerations of Google's Presence in China

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When Jim Caccamo, Ph.D., an expert in computing and telecommunications technology ethics, heard of Google's recent struggles in China, he knew he'd need to update the curriculum for the Technology, Society and Christian Ethics course he teaches at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, PA.

The Internet heavyweight recently rerouted all searches from its heavily censored mainland China search engine to its more open Hong Kong engine in the wake of a massive hack on its system in December, which some have attributed to the Chinese government.

"Not a lot happens on the Web in China that the government isn't aware of, and it's hard to believe they didn't know about the hacking that happened over the winter," says Caccamo, who is an associate professor of theology.

Upon entering the Chinese market with, the company drew criticism for censoring searches, something it does not do in its U.S. counterpart. According to Caccamo, this apparent double standard was the result of Google operating under a different set of ethics in China – business ethics.

"Clearly, there are different ethical sensibilities operating in different spheres here," Caccamo says. "In the U.S., there is a difference between ethics and business ethics. We tend to operate under distinct codes of ethics in different parts of our lives. When people think about business ethics, many use a constricted set of understandings of what those ethics are. For some companies, things like enhancing human rights go beyond what they understand business ethics as requiring."

In the beginning of its China odyssey, Google operated its search engine according to a set of business ethics applicable in China.

"It appears that Google entered China under the agreement that it would abide by the government's regulations as long as the government didn't infringe on its business," Caccamo says. "Now, one side of that agreement has broken down because it seems that the government is infringing on Google's business by hacking into its systems. As a result, the other side of the agreement is breaking down, too, and we see Google pushing back against the boundaries of censorship. With business looking bad, they've finally been freed up to take a broader look at the ethical realities."

Though the Internet giant's initial compliance with Chinese Internet censorship was met with legitimate criticism in the U.S., there is a case to be made for limited censorship, according to Caccamo. Using the example of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater as a limit on free speech, Caccamo noted that there are already reasonable and ethically defensible limitations on Internet use in the United States, including bans on child pornography and death threats, among others.


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