I suspect that most Americans believe that 'speech' (i.e., opinions and content) on the Web should be wide open -- as long as it isn't obviously treasonous, illegal (drugs, kiddie porn), or unsuitable material made available to kids (porn). We despair over the fact that the process isn't perfect -- pervs lurking around MySpace, for example -- but that seems more an argument for enforcement than for censorship.
But it's the Internet isn't the United States, it's the world. And American companies doing business on the Web are finding themselves facing the same dilemma older U.S. corporations encountered when they went global 50 or 100 years ago. They are finding that other nations operate by rules that are not only unlike those at home, but may even be illegal by U.S. laws.
Older readers may remember the scandal in the 1970s when some aerospace companies were caught making pay-offs to foreign governments to land plum contracts. It was so bad that a buddy of mine, who was working a Lockheed at the time, when told that there would be cutbacks in his departments, raised his hand and asked, "May I please be transferred to the Foreign Bribery division?".
But despite the transgressions, it's possible to sympathize with the moral quandary in which these companies found themselves: In order to grow, keep their employees and fulfill their responsibility to shareholders, they had to expand their businesses to other countries. In some of those other countries, bribery was an accepted form business -- and if the U.S. company wasn't willing to participate, the contracts would go to international competitors who could.
Ultimately, it was decided that bribery was one of those boundaries beyond which U.S. companies could not go -- even if it meant losing business -- because it degraded the company itself, it undermined the spirit of real competition, and it raised the general acceptance of corporate criminality here in the U.S.
Looking back, it was the right decision. Forced to compete honestly, U.S. companies still won by being more innovative, better run and offering superior customer service. By not getting down in the mud with our international competitors, we raised the quality of business competition almost everywhere.
Now American corporations face a new moral dilemma… and so far they are doing a lousy job of responding to it. Perhaps that's because the challenge is much more complex and nuanced: companies such as Google and Yahoo! aren't being asked by other countries to do anything as obvious illegal as passing envelopes full of money under a table somewhere. Rather, it is merely suggested that if they want to continue doing business in certain totalitarian (China) and authoritarian (the EU) societies they need to censor themselves of unwanted content.
It's a subtle request that lends itself to easy rationalization. After all, it's not as if Google is actively doing anything to the Chinese people – the company's marvelous service remains intact to help students and entrepreneurs and researchers… minus just a few items. What's the harm in that?
Ditto with hate speech. Who needs those kinds of troublemakers anyway? If the Europeans don't want certain political content on their Web, who can blame them? And if the Chinese say the Falun Gong is a trouble-making cult, who's to say they aren't right?