Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


China's Internet Blocking and Ethics

Rebecca MacKinnon has a post about US companies which are selling internet censorship technologies to China, “Confirmed: All Typepad blogs blocked in China:”

It’s a complicated issue. We need greater scrutiny of U.S. tech companies in China by bloggers, journalists, human rights activists, and anybody who cares about free speech and corporate accountability. We need more information about what these companies actually know when they are selling their products and services. To what extent are they actively providing service and support for uses that are clearly aimed to stifle free speech?

I’d like to ask about the ethics of such a thing. In “How about, ‘Don’t Be Evil’“, Tom Ptacek takes issue with the ISC2 Code of Ethics. ISC2 is an information security professional association. I can’t seem to find any advice in it about this situation. The closest it comes is:

Treat all constituents fairly. In resolving conflicts, consider public safety and duties to principals, individuals, and the profession in that order.

Hmmm, public saftey? Isn’t that China’s excuse for a lot of things?

In stark contrast is the ACM’s Code of Ethics. ACM is the Association of Computing Machinists, a broader professional society.

1.1 Contribute to society and human well-being.

This principle concerning the quality of life of all people affirms an obligation to protect fundamental human rights and to respect the diversity of all cultures. An essential aim of computing professionals is to minimize negative consequences of computing systems, including threats to health and safety. When designing or implementing systems, computing professionals must attempt to ensure that the products of their efforts will be used in socially responsible ways, will meet social needs, and will avoid harmful effects to health and welfare.

So, while not resolving the issue, of “May I work on a censorware program,” the ACM makes clear, and immediate, mention of human rights.

My gut belief is that it is wrong to provide deep technical assistance to he Chinese regime, and those doing so should take stock, and look for more responsible work.

6 comments on "China's Internet Blocking and Ethics"

  • Axel says:

    “public safety” is not only China’s excuse for a lot of things. It’s an excuse all over the world by now. And that’s what scares me.

  • garym says:

    The ACM’s code can be interpreted as saying almost anything. You can say it mentions human rights, and that’s true. But it also talks about “diversity of all cultures” — that could be taken as meaning we shouldn’t “impose American values” such as freedom on other cultures. Which “negative consequences” take precedence, damage to so-called “public safety” or to free communication? The stress on “social needs” seems to say that “society” takes precedence over individual rights.
    Sorry, but I’ve never been impressed by the ACM’s code of ethics.

  • Adam says:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the ACM code is pretty flexible, and you can find support for a great many positions in there.
    But I can’t find support for the “Don’t sell blocking software to China,” or “prevent your company from collecting SSNs for no good reason” positions in the ISC2 code, and thus I think the ACM code is a better one.
    “This is unethical!” “No its not. Here’s your code of ethics. Doesn’t say a thing about this.”

  • I’ve never found the classic liberal dilemma between personal values and cultural relativism to be as hard as many make it out. There is a large difference between respecting a cultural difference and contributing to that which you do not believe. Very few ethics scholars would ever say that sin by omission (failing to condemn chinese censorship) is equivalent to commission (participating in the building the machinery).
    This is not the same thing as building a barbed wire factory, or even building the PC’s that the censors may use. If a company is altering products to meet the specs given by a client to take specific actions, and those actions would run contrary to your moral view, then actively contributing to that product is unethical.

  • Jim Horning says:

    A detail. ACM is the Association for Computing Machinery ( The name is an anachronism (ACM was founded in 1947), but various attempts to update it have failed to gain adequate support.

  • Paul says:

    I don’t see why everyone is so uptight about this whole issue. Censorship always takes place in one form or another, even in North America (if you think otherwise, boy are you naive!). China is running their government as they see fit. They have every right to control what goes on inside their borders – it is part of their “society”. The ACM creedo only states that we would build systems that support society.

Comments are closed.