Is Self-Censorship Sensible?

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The big brothers of the online community, including Google, Yahoo! And Microsoft, have been in the firing line in the US over their actions to comply with Chinese censorship requirements. At a time when freedom of speech has also come under attack in relation to the publication of controversial cartoons in Denmark, global companies are having to wrestle with sensitive issues in different countries and cultures. How can they approach this issue in China, where attitudes to the press are very different from in the US and Europe?

Publish and be damned was an approach that did not do well for Rupert Murdoch some years ago, when he took over Star TV in Asia in 1993, and talked about it spreading democracy. It was quickly shut out in China, which did nobody much good. His later (joint) venture, Phoenix TV, has been very different. While it contains what has been referred to by a leading US press and PR man as propaganda, it has also pushed the boundaries on news reporting in China. The verdict? On balance, it is better for everyone that it be in, rather than out.

It is clear that while companies want to serve their customers, they also need to attract them in the first place. Offering a bad service will not get them far, but some compromises will be worth making for commercial reasons, even if some people do not like them politically.

Foreign companies in China need to account for local rules, regulations and culture if they are to succeed. However, they also need to account for rules at home that follow them overseas (such as anti-corruption laws), and for the demands of shareholders, customers and other interest groups. With China being such a strategic market, the balance of these arguments has been shifting east for many foreign businesses, and they need to deal with the impact intelligently.

Commercial engagement with China allows for the exchange of business and cultural links that promote understanding and integration, and this is a positive thing for China and the world. It is for governments to regulate, and businesses must abide by the rules. But within those rules they must be free to make commercial decisions about how to operate.

Microsoft chief, Bill Gates noted that internet was a tool for openness and that official interference could not stop the spread of ideas. He also said that Germany bans Nazi hate speech – the US clearly constitutionally protects that. Should I do business in Germany?. Strong words indeed. The need for an uncomfortable compromise in some cases is inevitable, but it is not, as at least one US Congressman has suggested, evil (as do no evil Google will be glad to hear!).

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