Opinion: Morality Is Not a Group Effort

[qi:076] Today is Diwali, one of the holiest days on the Hindu calendar, one that has transcended religious barriers because it celebrates the victory of good over evil. It is therefore appropriate that today is when the news is emerging that large Internet companies — Google (s GOOG), Microsoft (s MSFT) and Yahoo (s YHOO) — are teaming up with human rights groups and other organizations to set up a Global Network Initiative that will help “avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression.” The effort is a resistance against draconian impositions by the likes of Chinese government.

This is an important first step in providing standards for free expression and privacy that obligate companies to do more to challenge government restrictions…It sets up an accountability mechanism that will allow each of the companies to be evaluated over time.
— Michael Posner, president of Human Rights First, as quoted in The New York Times

I am a little bemused by the positive spin around today’s news, for it tries to disguise the past misdoings of these Internet giants. The hypocrisy of their actions speak louder than their words. All three companies — Google, Yahoo and Microsoft — have cooperated with the Chinese government in the past, given up information that has led to human right violations of certain people. In India, a division of Google accepts advertising from companies that sell services related to what is essentially gender-based infanticide. Is that less evil than privacy violations or suppression of speech? This selective approach to doing the right thing is one of the reasons why all of them get an F (for failed.)
While I laud the efforts of all these companies, the big question I have for them is: Why do they need to act as a group to do the right thing? If protecting privacy and freedom of speech are so important to these companies, then why are they actually doing business in places like China? Why not take a more individualistic moral stand and stop doing business in China (or any other place that routinely violates human rights) and show the world that your principles demand you to forego current and future profits? The answer, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, is that “Money, not morality, is the principle of commerce and commercial nations.”
Growing up, my parents explained to me that doing the right thing is the only option — regardless of consequences and situations. They said that sometimes it is the hardest thing to do because you are all by yourself. John F. Kennedy put it more eloquently when he said,  “A man does what he must-in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures-and that is the basis of all human morality.” These Internet giants might want to remember that.