In Google We Trust

A Matter of Principle
Jan 26, 2010 11:15 AM ET

The Economy of Trust

This week I am proud to be a Googlican. 

GoodB is happy to report that Google continues to be one of the best models for Good Business around. No, we are not sipping Kool-Aid! As most of you know, Google, the internet search giant, has challenged one of its biggest clients, the money machine of the 21st century Communist China, on the subject of free speech and ethics.   In all the hullabaloo this past year as the financial crisis enfolded and China stepped in to lend America piles of cash against a future of debt, little was mentioned about the communist government of China. People like brilliant policy shaper Tom Friedman waxed rhapsodic at the wonders of China with green-eyed envy. China had become the flat world’s wunderkind.   I marveled at the hypnotic affects of China’s “capitalism” in the past decade over respected and innovative thinkers. Friedman in “The World is Flat” listed China as a welcome addition to the global economy, a great commercial giant leveling the playing field.   In the U.S. love affair with China, as the Big O (and George Dubbya before him) shake their hands and money tree, otherwise smart people seemed to forget who our benefactor really is. It’s the Big Bad Wolf, folks and we are on our way to Grandma’s house.   For all the Red Scare of the 50’s through 80’s, the Soviet Union was the wolf. Russia continues to be vilified in the press and Public Square. The message is repeatedly clear. They are a communist dictatorship and do not value American-style freedom. They can’t be trusted.  Okay…so how did China slip through the cracks to become one of the most admired economies by the western world?   The affair with Big Red began with the smell of money. Back in the mid 1990s, top execs at Goldman Sachs were scouting the world for new opportunities. The economic neutron bomb, hedge fund Long Term Capital, had exploded and with it the Russian market.   All eyes turned to the East. CEO Hank Paulson turned for help to Goldman pal, Robert Rubin, who sat comfortably in the U.S. Treasury seat. President Clinton signed on and the stars aligned. China was open for business.   The belief in the early 21st century among many of the “best” economic minds of the day (including Alan Greenspan) was that communism through capitalism would slowly transform into democracy.  Ahh, we were so young and foolish back then. We believed so many fanciful things, like capitalism actually has anything to do with democracy!   In the lust for profits in the developing nation of China, American businessmen and policy makers seemed to forget - they kill people there! They round up “dissidents” (anyone who does not agree with The Party), force them into kangaroo courts, torture them behind closed doors, break their spirits, and whisk them away forever. And we think Iran’s government is ”bad?” I guess they are not our trading partner, so we can afford to be preachy. As soon as China became a primary source of revenue we were up the creek without a paddle….   (Just a quick note, if the financial crisis had occurred in China, what do you think would have happened to the subprime mortgage industry titans who took the money and ran? It is doubtful a Chinese Wall Street could have run too far. Guess there are perks to living with the Green-Reds after all.)   I have not understood for the past decade how the U.S. government can crow loudly about the violations of individual freedom in parts of the Middle East and somehow remain non-committal on the ongoing human cruelty in China.   Last month, outspoken Chinese dissident and well-known member of the American civil rights group PEN, Liu Xiaobo, was convicted of “inciting subversion” for calling forth “greater human rights” in China and the end of one-party rule. He was sentenced to 11 years in a maximum security prison. His wife was held in house arrest by the Chinese police during the trial. So much for democracy, even worse, forget about basic human rights.   These are the people with whom we willingly do business. These are the folks whose fortunes are made by Walmart shoppers. These are the folks who now own the future of America. Isn’t business supposed to be based on trust?   Google’s recent challenge to the Chinese government’s hacking of private email accounts reveals the struggle between Chinese and American style commerce. When it comes to “free enterprise” in a non-free society, the limitations of capitalism are plain to see. In America, capitalism trumped democracy once again this year. In China, communism will always have the upper hand.   China and Google have butted heads over user privacy and censorship before. In my book, Spiritual Capitalism, I detailed the complex ethical issues between Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and Chinese authorities. In 2006, all three tech companies succumbed to pressure to remove any blog or website critical of the Chinese government. Yahoo shockingly turned a political activist’s email identity over to officials. He was never seen nor heard from again.   Google and Microsoft chose to allow censorship, yet refused to reveal private identities and moved all email accounts offshore. All three U.S. companies were summoned before a Congressional panel and summarily chastised for their actions. More than one congressman compared their actions to Nazi complicity.   Time Magazine ran a cover story in February 2006, “Can you trust Google with your secrets?” as the commitment of the tech giant to its mantra, Don’t Be Evil, was called into question. A Google spokesman stated the company was not “ashamed” of its action, but “not proud.”  Better to have limited Internet rather than none, he explained. The response never sat quite right with the rest of Free Speech America.   The current situation involves more than suppression of First Amendment values. The Chinese government stands accused of “hacking” into private email accounts of political dissidents. Hacking is the digital equivalent of breaking and entering. The issue at stake is the very essence of Google core values. It’s good to know that when Big Brother is watching you, your other Big Brother has got your back.   Google is considering pulling their search engine out of China - a country of 1.3 billion people, four times the population in the United States. An amazing action for any hugely profitable publicly traded company. The threat alone would make shareholders shudder and competitors gloat. It also can make their largest client, the People’s Republic of China, mad as a hatter.   Yet they are willing to put their money where their ethics are, potentially risking enormous profits, and raising the bar of corporate social responsibility to a new level most of us will have to leap to follow.   This week Google profits are down 13%. The toll of the recession and the threat of Chinese action are already weighing heavily on the tech giant. Yet Google stated in their 2004 IPO that they wanted to be a different kind of company, one that did not sacrifice their core values for short-term profits.   That is a tough call for any for-profit company. Business leaders meet ethical challenges daily. Little in the world of money is black and white. There is always a grey area where profits must be considered against human needs. This is what doing good business demands of us. Asking questions like, “How do you stay in business, answer to the bottom line, and still maintain the soul of who you are?”   These are the dilemmas faced by modern business -big, small, and everything in between. Wall Street has been called on the carpet in recent months. So far they have failed miserably to balance two essential values: profits and the human bottom line.   The key for managers and companies faced with difficult decisions is to have a clear foundation of principles from which to act. Like valuing quality of life and placing the welfare of people and planet before profits. That is a hard lesson for business. Yet it remains the fundamental test of good business for 21st century enterprise.   However this issue rolls out, Google has made a profound statement with its current stance. Sergey, Brin, and all the Googlicans are saying simply, some things are more important than money- principles and people. In the process, they have renewed our faith in ethically responsible capitalism.   This year, we watched incredulously as one profitable firm after another justified reprehensible breeches of ethics as the cost of doing business.  Google’s actions set them apart from the pack by drawing a distinct line in the sand. They are in business to profit, but they refuse to sell their soul to do it. The search king reveals once again that trust in business is not a PR slogan, but an absolutely essential component in any contemporary business model.   Just goes to show, there are some things in life you can still count on. It is good to know that Google is one of them.

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