Yahoo’s Ethical Dilemma

Information Yahoo provided to Chinese authorities led to the essentially political arrest of journalist Shi Tao. Most of us would applaud Yahoo for providing information that led to the arrest of a murderer or a child-molester, in which cases Yahoo would similarly be helping local authorities enforce the law. However, what Yahoo did to Shi seems wrong, and that leads me to two observations.

The first seems obvious but is not always acknowledged: not every culture’s views are equally legitimate. By criticizing Yahoo’s actions the French group Reporters Without Borders supposes–correctly–that there are ethical standards that transcend cultural and political borders. Yet many among today’s intelligentsia might consider such a view chauvinistic, were it delineated explicitly.

The second observation is that we can expect this kind of ethical quandary with international corporations such as Yahoo. While we should apply ethical standards that transcend borders, those standards have to come out of a cultural framework of some sort. Many international corporations have no common cultural framework from which to draw a set of ethical standards (because the culture of each country’s office is different), and their leadership is so diluted (i.e. not like a family business), that they end up being non-ethical. What regulates their behavior then becomes only what best promotes the company while obeying local laws. Oftentimes those interests happen to align in ways good and helpful both to the bottom line and society. Sometimes they don’t, as in Yahoo’s dealings with Shi. Then we become concerned.

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