should Microsoft be held accountable for helping to violate human rights?

Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al has accused Microsoft of sup­ply­ing soft­ware to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment that has been used to track and jail dis­si­dents oper­at­ing online. Appar­ent­ly Chi­na has jailed polit­i­cal oppo­nents that have cir­cu­lat­ed mate­r­i­al over the inter­net that is offen­sive to the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment, and they have been using Microsoft tech­nol­o­gy to do it. 

Accord­ing to the source arti­cle, “The human rights group has slat­ed Bill Gates’s com­pa­ny for an ‘inad­e­quate response’ to esca­lat­ing abus­es in Chi­na. ‘We don’t believe this is appro­pri­ate or respon­si­ble,’ said Mark Alli­son, an Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al researcher who wrote the report. ‘[Microsoft] should be more con­cerned about human rights abus­es and should be using its influ­ence to lift restric­tions on free­dom of expres­sion and get peo­ple out of prison. It is wor­ry­ing that they don’t seem to have raised these issues.” Microsoft respond­ed by claim­ing: “We are focused on deliv­er­ing the best tech­nol­o­gy to peo­ple through­out the world. How­ev­er, how that tech­nol­o­gy is used is with the indi­vid­ual and ulti­mate­ly not in the com­pa­ny’s control.”

Should Microsoft be crit­i­cized for not respond­ing to what Chi­na has done with their tech­nol­o­gy? If so, what would have been the appro­pri­ate response?

I think there should be some bal­ance between cap­ti­tal­ism and busi­ness ethics, but I’m not sure what that bal­ance is, nor have I decid­ed what Microsoft was moral­ly oblig­at­ed to do in this sit­u­a­tion. Any thoughts? 

For more infor­ma­tion, be sure to read the source arti­cle.

13 thoughts on “should Microsoft be held accountable for helping to violate human rights?”

  1. I am *not* a fan of Microsoft, but I do NOT think they should be critized for this. They are a soft­ware com­pa­ny, NOT a human rights organization.

    This would be like suing the Govt because the econ­o­my sucks, or the phone com­pa­ny because you get tele­mar­keters call­ing you.

    Microsoft is sell­ing a prod­uct. They do not have the need, or even the right, to tell Chi­na how to use it.

    I am *very* much against what Chi­na does to/with it’s cit­i­zens, and I in no way con­done these actions at ALL, but them using Win­dows to do so is *not* MS’s fault.

  2. I think I tend to agree with you, but I’m inter­est­ed in hear­ing argu­ments to the con­trary (per­haps I’ll check out the web­site for Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al and see if they say any­thing interesting).

  3. *pon­ders argu­ments to the contrary*

    I see 2 main ones: 

    As a US-based com­pa­ny, it can be said they have a moral oblig­a­tion to uphold the val­ues of the US as an “ambas­sador” of a type. Oth­er coun­tries judge us by our prod­ucts and by our actions. As such, we have a duty to fight against injus­tices and inhumanities.

    It does­n’t mat­ter what com­pa­ny or per­son is involved, we have an oblig­a­tion as mem­bers of a free soci­ety to not aid and/or abet any­one who is car­ry­ing out what are essen­tial­ly crimes against humanity.

    Both argu­ments rest on a moral­i­ty basis though. If you remove that, there’s no real foun­da­tion for it to stand on.

  4. Geoff,

    The sec­ond argu­ment sounds fair­ly com­pelling. I’m not sure what you mean by “both argu­ments rest on a moral­i­ty basis, though”. Are you imply­ing that any suc­cess­ful argu­ment in this case SHOULDN’T? 

    I think that cor­po­ra­tions have moral oblig­a­tions, just as peo­ple do…I just don’t know what that oblig­a­tion would be here. On the one hand, I want to say it is not a busi­ness’s PLACE to dic­tate what should or should­n’t be done with their prod­ucts, and that they should­n’t be held moral­ly account­able for what peo­ple do with the prod­ucts they sell. But if a busi­ness KNOWS that a buy­er is doing some­thing as moral­ly atro­cious as what Chi­na is doing with Microsoft­’s, SHOULD they do some­thing (or, at the very least, cease doing busi­ness with them)?

    If I sell guns, and I hap­pen to know that a per­son I’m sell­ing guns to is mur­der­ing peo­ple with them, apart from any LEGAL oblig­a­tions I have (since they don’t real­ly apply to the Microsoft case), am I MORALLY oblig­at­ed to do some­thing? I think that I would have a moral oblig­a­tion — at the very least — to cease doing busi­ness with this per­son. In doing busi­ness with a per­son that I KNOW is, say, mur­der­ing peo­ple with my prod­uct, I am thus in some way con­tribut­ing to that act (even if we may sup­pose that per­son could aquire these guns by oth­er means). 

    Just as I, per­son­al­ly, feel a moral oblig­a­tion to boy­cott busi­ness­es that have moral­ly ques­tion­able prac­tices, I think that Microsoft has a moral oblig­a­tion to, at the very least, cease pro­vid­ing this tech­nol­o­gy to China.

    So, I guess I do agree with Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al some­what, now that I think about it. It’s just that I don’t think that Microsoft is any MORE guilty of doing this kind of thing than many oth­er busi­ness­es that, say, use sweat­shop labor or what­not. Or any MORE guilty than cus­tomers that BUY prod­ucts they know have been pro­duced under sweat­shop con­di­tions, etc.

    Okay…I’ll step off my soap­box now.

  5. A suc­cess­ful argu­ment may or may not rest on a moral­i­ty foun­da­tion. The only two argu­ments I could think of were both moral­i­ty based. It’s pos­si­ble that a suc­cess­ful argu­ment could be based on fac­tor oth­er than morals, but that would require some­thing like oth­er nations refus­ing to pur­chase Microsoft prod­ucts for as long as they’re sell­ing to Chi­na. That would make it a busi­ness deci­sion for Microsoft, although you could say that it was still dri­ven by morals, ie, the oth­er coun­tries not approv­ing of what Chi­na is doing.

    Per­haps the *only* argu­ments against Microsoft are based in morality.

    I agree that com­pa­nies do have a cer­tain moral oblig­a­tion, as per your exam­ple. How­ev­er, I think it is up to that com­pa­ny to decide if they find morals or prof­it more impor­tant. It is then up to the pub­lic to decide if they wish to accept that com­pa­nies deci­sion or if they wish to “pun­ish” the com­pa­ny in some way: bad press, boy­cotting prod­ucts, etc.

    Microsoft is in a unique posi­tion though. Their soft­ware lit­er­al­ly pow­ers much of the worlds econ­o­my. Remove their prod­ucts, and there’s a good chance we’d suf­fer a world­wide eco­nom­ic col­lapse for at least a cou­ple of years, while soft­ware was re-writ­ten for oth­er OS’s, test­ed and sys­tems rebuilt. Microsoft has the abil­i­ty to lit­er­al­ly ignore world opin­ion for a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time, sim­ply because they have such a dom­i­nant mar­ket share of the IT world and coun­tries are lit­er­al­ly depen­dant on Microsoft­’s prod­ucts to stay func­tion­ing. Peo­ple being the sheeple they are, by the time they would have annoyed enough peo­ple to actu­al­ly *do* some­thing about it, would have for­got­ten what all the fuss was about, and have gone back to Microsofts warm embrace, per­haps with a lit­tle spank­ing to remind them not to chal­lange Father Microsoft­’s wis­dom (say with a price hike).

    THe irony of all this is that Chi­na was inves­ti­gat­ing a num­ber of non-Microsoft options unless MS gave them their source code, which MS did *heh*. Now, if we could bring MS up on trea­son charges for dis­trib­ut­ing infor­ma­tion vital to nation­al secu­ri­ty (ie, the source code for a good por­tion of the nations defense sys­tems), we’d see them slammed in a BIG way.

  6. Geoff,

    You said:
    “I agree that com­pa­nies do have a cer­tain moral oblig­a­tion, as per your exam­ple. How­ev­er, I think it is up to that com­pa­ny to decide if they find morals or prof­it more impor­tant. It is then up to the pub­lic to decide if they wish to accept that com­pa­nies deci­sion or if they wish to “pun­ish” the com­pa­ny in some way: bad press, boy­cotting prod­ucts, etc.”

    Well, the ques­tion I was explor­ing was a MORAL ques­tion: does Microsoft have a MORAL oblig­a­tion here? I do not dis­pute that they, legal­ly speak­ing, have the option or right to ignore morals or not. And I do not dis­pute the pub­lic’s legal right to say some­thing (or not) about Microsoft­’s actions. 

    What we have a moral oblig­a­tion to do is sep­a­rate from what we have the legal right or option to do. And what I was ask­ing, specif­i­cal­ly, had to do with the former.

  7. But we can link legal and moral togeth­er here. Many of our laws have moral basis. You could argue that legal­ly, they have a moral oblig­a­tion to refuse to sell to China.

  8. But not every­thing that is immoral is ille­gal, and vice ver­sa. It is NOT ille­gal for Microsoft to sell to Chi­na (I don’t believe), but it does not fol­low that it is not IMMORAL for them to do so.

  9. The whole legal argu­ment can be a seper­ate issue. I think it *should* be ille­gal (and that it may well be) for them to sell on two basis: Morals and Nation­al Security

    I was try­ing to link morals to legal in this spe­cif­ic case. I don’t think that ille­gal will always be immoral and vice versa.

    I find I must how­ev­er revise my opin­ion some­what from my orig­i­nal post­ing. I still don’t feel that MS has any right to tell Chi­na *how* to use the soft­ware, but if Chi­na uses it express­ly for immoral pur­pos­es of this mag­ni­tude, then I think they are immoral for sup­ply­ing addi­tion­al software/updates/patches to China.

    This does make me think of some­thing else though: How immoral does some­thing have to be before we can blame a ven­dor, like Microsoft.

    I think we can blame MS for sup­port­ing Chi­na, but what about MS for sell­ing to, say, the FBI for use in record­ing wire­taps? Or the CIA for black­bag ops?

    Do we make the dis­tinc­tion between “bad” immoral and “good” immoral? or per­haps more accu­rate­ly, accept­able and unac­cept­able lev­els of morality.

  10. Ahhh…I see what you’re say­ing now. Hmmm…I don’t know about the whole legal­i­ty issue. I think I’d have to think more about that. And I think that when a prod­uct used on a mas­sive scale as a tool to vio­late human rights, that counts as suf­fi­cient­ly immoral such that, if a busi­ness is AWARE that their prod­ucts are being used in this way, they have an oblig­a­tion to cease sell­ing their prod­uct to the vio­lat­ing cus­tomer. (Was that sen­tence con­fus­ing enough?) I don’t know what to say about less­er offens­es, though (I’d have to think about it.)

  11. Yes! I read about that in an arti­cle about GMail. It was just an arti­cle announc­ing the ser­vice — and the most it said about inva­sion of pri­va­cy was that Google would pro­tect the con­tent of your email from oth­er peo­ple (did­n’t seem to imply that it was wor­ri­some that Google itself would be read­ing your mail!).

  12. I’ve been think­ing about that GMail stuff all through Japan­ese and PolSci. I can’t decide if it’s immoral or not now. On the one hand, it *is* an inva­sion of pri­va­cy and immoral for rea­sons like that, *BUT*, this is a free ser­vice and they’re not hid­ing what they’re doing. 

    Do we real­ly have a *right* to com­plain about it, if we sign up, KNOWING they will be doing this? Would­n’t us accept­ing the ser­vice as is negate the immoral­i­ty? I don’t think it nec­es­sar­i­ly makes it moral to do so, but I have seri­ous doubts about it being immoral if we know­ing­ly accept these “fea­tures” for a ser­vice we want, and don’t need.

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