Corporate Social Responsibility

By: ladan on 19 June 2008

“It is Google's policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so. When we remove search results for these reasons, we display a notice on our search results pages.”1

This is Google’s transparency pledge. Similarly, MSN (Microsot's search engine) and Yahoo pledge their commitments to transparency and global freedom of access to information publicly. However, they're also struggling with the (harsh) reality of operating in certain foreign countries. In the case of China, Citizen’s lab just finished a study on the censorship practices of popular search engines. The report concludes, “search engine companies maintain an overall low level of transparency regarding their censorship practices and … that independent monitoring is required to evaluate their compliance with public pledges regarding commitments to transparency and human rights.” What is even more disturbing is that in August of 2006, Human Rights Watch published a report on corporate complicity with Chinese censorship, and the Citizen Lab’s finding confirms that no substantial move has been made on the part of the involved corporations to rectify the situation. One may wonder why the corporate world has not taken any promising, proper initiatives in this regard. In an era where corporations are not merely evaluated in terms of their annual profits but also in their environmental conscientious and loyalty to shareholders, we need to also demand social responsibility.

It is interesting to note that censoring software such as Policenet, Watchdog Router (both used in China), Smartfilter (used in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia) and Fortinet (used in Burma) are developed not inside totalitarian counties but rather in North American companies(2,3). Nart Villeneuve argues that in the case of Google (that censors considerably less than the other engines), the local, authorized content are give a higher weight in the ranking algorithm and therefore the probability of a censored site being selected and presented is substantially smaller. In the case of Yahoo, he notes that, “while tends to not rank ‘authorized’ content as highly as, the results from heavily favor ‘authorized’ content.” One can argue that for search engine companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft present in China, obligatory licensing and the threat of shutdown in case of noncompliance is an imperative incentive for filtering the search result.(4)

Although censored sites form a small portion of the net, these sites are paramount to the dispersion of alternative (at times opposing) ideologies, freedom of expression and growth of democracy. Furthermore, only through public pressure, creation of a code of conduct (5,6) for operating in censored environments and independent monitoring of corporate compliance with their public pledges can we shed some light on this situation.