It is one of the most iconic images of recent decades: an image of an unknown man standing in front of a line of tanks during the protests in 1989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In one shot, the photographer, Jeff Widener, managed to convey a society that fights between the freedoms of individual citizens and the hard hand of the Chinese militarized state.
It is also an image that few within the "great firewall" of China have access, let alone see. For those who have read 1984, it may almost seem as if "Tank Man" had fallen into a memory hole, erased from the collective memory of more than one billion people.
At this time, it is well known that Chinese search engines such as Baidu censor that political photograph. Regardless of the individual morality of their decisions, it is at least understandable that Chinese companies with mostly Chinese incomes carefully comply with the law as established by the Chinese Communist Party. It is a closed system after all.
However, what we are learning is that not only Chinese companies are helping and encouraging this censorship. They are also Western companies. And Western workers are not happy that they are working to enforce anti-freedom policies in the Middle Kingdom.
Take Shutterstock, which has been criticized for complying with China's great firewall. As Sam Biddle described in The Intercept last month, the company has been internally divided between workers seeking to protect democratic values and a company desperate to expand further into one of the most dynamic countries in the world. Biddle:
The shutterstock censorship feature appears to have been immediately controversial within the company, which led more than 180 Shutterstock workers to sign a petition against the blacklist of search and accuse the company of exchanging its values to access the lucrative market. Chinese.
Those requests supposedly have not gone anywhere internally, and that has led employees like Stefan Hayden, who describes almost ten years of experience in the company as a frontend developer on his LinkedIn profile, to resign:
Today is my last day at Shutterstock.
I have been here for nine years, but when a ethical dispute remains unresolved and I have the privilege of being able to move on and I am proud to do so. https://t.co/K5131k0UyL
– Stefan Hayden (@StefanHayden) December 6, 2019
The defiance of these political risks is barely unknown to Shutterstock. The company's most recent annual financial presentation to the SEC lists market access and censorship as a key risk for the company (emphasis mo):
For example, national Internet service providers have blocked and continue to block access to Shutterstock in China and other countries, such as Turkey, have intermittently restricted access to Shutterstock. There are substantial uncertainties regarding the interpretation of foreign laws and regulations that censor the content available through our products and services and we may be forced to significantly change or interrupt our operations in those markets if we are found in violation of any new law. or existing or regulation. If access to our products and services is restricted, in whole or in part, in one or more countries or our competitors can successfully enter geographic markets that we cannot access, our ability to retain or increase our base of taxpayers and customers can be negatively affected, We may not be able to maintain or increase our income as planned, and our financial results may be adversely affected.
Therefore, the problem: market access means compromising the same values that a content provider like Shutterstock relies on to operate as a business. The stock image company is not unique to find itself in this position; It is a situation that the NBA has had to face in recent weeks:
It's great to see Shutterstock employees defend freedom and democracy, and if they don't find an internal purchase with their values, at least walk with their feet to other companies that value freedom more reliably.
Unfortunately, too many companies, and too many technology companies, blindly pursue dollars and yuan, without considering the erosion of values at the heart of their own business. That erosion finally adds up: without guiding principles to handle trade challenges, decisions are made ad hoc taking into account income, which intensifies the risk of crisis like the one faced by Shutterstock.
The complexity of the Chinese market has only expanded with the prodigious growth of the country. The sharpness, intensity and self-reflection of the values necessary for Western companies to operate on the continent has reached new highs. And yet, executives have communicated very little the values and limitations they face, both to their own employees and to their shareholders.
As I wrote earlier this year when Google Exploding the search controversy in China, it is not enough to be militant about values. Values must be cultivated, and everyone, from software engineers to CEOs, must understand the objectives of a company and the values that limit them.
As he writes at that time:
Internet as independence movement is 100% dead.
That makes the terrain for Silicon Valley workers much harder to navigate. Everything is a commitment, one way or another. Even the very act of creating value, possibly the most important feature of the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, has driven massive inequality, as we explored in Extra Crunch this weekend in an in-depth interview.
Finally, I was in favor of Google's commitment to China, if only because I felt that the company understood its values better than most (after all, left the Chinese market in the first place, and one would expect the company to do the same choice of new if necessary). Google has certainly not been perfect on a large number of fronts, but seems to have had much more self-reflection on the values it intends to offer than most technology companies.
However, it is time for all US companies to double the US values that underlie their businesses. Ultimately, if you commit to everything, it represents nothing, and what type of business would you like to join or support like this?
China cannot be ignored, but neither should companies ignore their own obligations to commit to open and democratic values. If Tank Man can stand in front of a tank line, US executives can stand in front of a line of their colleagues and find a ethical framework and set of values that can work.