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Talk discusses I.T. ethics

Steve Kerins | Wednesday, September 6, 2006

While many people think the Chinese government has total autonomy over its citizens -that’s not the case when it comes to freedom of expression and multinational corporations operating in China.

The Berges Lecture Series launched its string of six talks on business ethics with a panel discussion Tuesday evening entitled, “Freedom on the Internet and the Ethical Responsibility of I.T. companies in China,” with this issue as its heart. George Enderle, the O’Neil professor of international business ethics, moderated the discussion.

Lionel Jensen, department chair of East Asian languages and literature, was the evening’s first speaker. Jensen provided an overview of issues relevant to the use of the Internet in China today.

“Technology itself may be value-neutral, but it is always employed in a specific cultural context,” Jensen said.

Describing Chinese government policies directed at information control, he said, “Rights in such a context are better understood as privileges.”

Jensen said Internet access is now widely available in China, especially for young, educated people. He also described the rapid growth of information technology operations in China, which has led to conflict with the government.

“The [Chinese Communist Party] has encouraged the use of the World Wide Web,” he said, but it is less able to regulate it than it was before the advent of blogging capability.

Jensen also spoke about the government’s latest attempts to restrict the flow of information across its borders, which he said were “backed up by real policing power.”

It is against this background, Jensen said, that many international companies are willing to cooperate with state censorship to increase their Chinese market share.

Father Oliver Williams, director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business, followed Jensen. He compared the current situation businesses face in China with that encountered by multinational corporations in South Africa before the demise of apartheid.

Williams said freedom of expression, freedoms to receive and impart information and right to privacy are among the key human rights issues relevant in the Chinese business environment.

“If [multinational companies] were complicit in human rights abuses … it would be unethical for them to stay [in China],” he said.

Williams also touched on mechanisms for change in the Chinese government’s approach to these issues, noting its increased emphasis on lifting Chinese citizens out of poverty.

The final speaker theology professor David Clairmont, who examined how Catholic moral theology might be applied to the issues of Internet freedoms and international business in China.

Clairmont posed questions on the morality of accepting restrictions on human rights imposed by the Chinese government.

“[For corporations] to abide by the laws of the land in which they do business is to be complicit…in a qualified good,” he said. “Compliance with law has an element of testimony…giving credence to the laws that exist.”

Clairmont said “a further examination of our laws about freedom of information” is needed in the current debate.

The Berges Lecture Series is presented each fall by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business and the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide. The next lecture, entitled “What’s Hot in Business Ethics,” is scheduled for Sept. 18.