Global Communications, Local Regulation: Ethical Dilemmas for Business

Robert S. Marsel


Business Ethics is a complex and difficult topic to study and it is also difficult to teach. Given how many ethical problems have affected the corporate world in the past ten years [e.g., Enron, Tyco, and Boeing] it seems imperative that the topic be given renewed attention. Global communication is regulated by local regulation. What is allowed as free speech on the internet in the United States may not be allowed in China or other countries. To what extent do American business like Google and Microsoft have an ethical duty to take American views of free speech into the world marketplace, or should they adapt to standards of each local market or country. Put another way, should they assist the government of another country in suppressing dissent, or arresting dissidents. Put in its most stark context, there is an allegation that prior to World War II the American corporation ITT sold technology to the Nazi’s that helped them round up Jews for extermination. Whether true or not, it shows the ethical pitfalls that technology may cause for businesses that is best seen in hindsight, and is therefore most difficult to recognize when it arises. Another example is that in many countries it is now illegal for individuals to express support for Nazi ideas or to sell Nazi memorabilia. Those things are legal in the United States. So EBay is not totally global. On these and other issues it may have to, or perhaps should, comply with local regulation or sensibilities.

This paper considers what we mean by business ethics, where business ethics originate, how business ethics are studied from an academic perspective, and how they are actually used, or not used, in the business world [particularly in the United States and China]. Living by a set of business ethics in the United States not only prevents corporate scandal, but also improves workplace morale as well as corporate relations with government and the public [cf., Johnson & Johnson]. In the United States there is a generally held view that the internet is a place of free speech, where the market-place of ideas is best left free of government regulation. While there may well be some significant exceptions, most people in the United States can write most anything in emails and not expect to be censored or arrested. Google and Microsoft do not, so far as we know, assist governmental agencies in the United States in censorship or arresting individual dissidents.

Comparing American and Chinese perspectives on business ethics is a worthwhile undertaking for many reasons. Recent press coverage addresses the rise of China as a world economic power. Companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo now offer Chinese friendly software which filters not for junk email, or hackers, but for the words freedom and justice. This paper suggests how American business should deal with issues like this that arise in the course of globalization. Global internet communication is not totally global; it is limited and regulated locally. That is what makes for ethical dilemmas that are considered in this presentation.

Finally, one hopes and expects that most business, and most people in business, want to work with smart and articulate individuals, individuals trained in the liberal arts, who are open to change, and who engage in self-aware business practices. We expect and rely on ethically sound businesses, and surviving in the global market-place requires understanding other cultures and their view of business ethics, as well as our own notions of business ethics.