Weekly Walk of Shame: Dick Durbin

This Motley Fool series examines things that just aren't right in the world of finance and investing. Here's what's got us riled up this week. If something's bugging you, too -- and we suspect it is -- go ahead and unload in the comments section below.

Today's subject: Last week, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Assistant Senate Majority Leader, issued a press release in which he praised Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) for its stand against Chinese Internet censorship in the wake of a cyberattack.

If only he'd stopped there. Instead, Sen. Durbin announced a plan to hold hearings about tech companies' operating policies in Internet-restricting countries. He wants to find out if Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) , Facebook, Skype, Twitter, and others are prepared to "follow Google's lead," referring to the search king's threat to pull out of China and effectively cede that market to Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) .

Why you should be indignant: Forget for a moment that Durbin's "hearings" come across as modern-day McCarthyism. Or that the phrase, "I look forward to learning more about whether other American companies are willing to follow Google's lead" sounds as if it's meant to be followed with "or else."

Durbin's trying to shame the U.S. tech elite into becoming an instrument of foreign policy, and that's wrong.

But don't tell Durbin that. In August, in the wake of a government crackdown in Iran, Durbin and fellow senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma sent a letter to 26 tech companies urging them to agree to a voluntary code of conduct called the Global Network Initiative (GNI). Recipients included AT&T (NYSE: T  ) , Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , and Fortinet (Nasdaq: FTNT  ) .

Voluntary appeals are fine. Actually, they're more than fine. Durbin and Coburn, as senators, have a responsibility to lead. Arguing in favor of Internet freedom globally is a worthy cause, and there's nothing wrong with asking tech companies to do their part.

The problem is that Durbin's no longer asking. Instead, he's using the power of a Senate subcommittee to force companies to expose details of how they do business in China, shaming them into doing the federal government's dirty work.

I'll admit to being conflicted. Durbin's right, after all. Freedom of expression in all its forms -- including the Internet -- is a fundamental human right. Neither China nor Iran nor any other country or institution should be allowed to infringe that right.

My problem is that Durbin's solution, if you can call it that, is cowardly. If the United States is concerned about freedom of expression among its trading partners, then statesmen need to debate and pass legislation that's clear and enforceable. Short of that, you get Google. That's right, Google, the supposed paragon of virtue in this mess and a voluntary participant in the GNI.

The Big G seemed to be just fine with censorship right up to the point it was attacked, and is now being criticized for apparent overreaching after unconfirmed reports that it is cooperating with the National Security Agency. It's fair to ask: Is Google concerned about censorship, human rights, or the security of its multibillion-dollar Web infrastructure? Two of the three are worthy, principled stands. The third is capitalism at work. Google is a capitalist, one that's shown its evil side with repriced stock options.

In China, the company may still be dabbling in the dark side. Reuters reports that Google is one of a team of investors led by Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) that's planning to buy into the country's largest in-bus digital media and advertising company.

So much for principled stands, eh?

What now?
Durbin's mistake isn't just that he's picked the wrong company to establish a watermark on this issue. It's that he's avoiding the issue altogether -- taking it from the Senate floor to the foosball tables of the dot cognoscenti. What we don't know is whether the big techies will submit to the browbeating.

My guess is most will, if only to avoid the sort of congressional hoo-ha that led to the public belittling of banking and oil executives. But that, too, is cowardly. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the lot of them ought to force Durbin and his colleagues to address Chinese trade policy with the president, the State Department, and -- horrors! -- the Chinese. Isn't that what we pay them for?

What do you think about Sen. Durbin and his actions? Let us know in the comments section below!

Apple and Disney are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Disney is also a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Baidu and Google are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Apple and stock positions in Disney and Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy is huddled up by the fire, ready to take on the D.C. snowpocalypse.


Read/Post Comments (11) | Recommend This Article (22)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2010, at 11:56 AM, chuyita wrote:

    Put simply. Take a look at the Chinese leaders. Wise and calculated and they don't waste time. Durban though has the forum of the whole US senate where he can make FOOLish proposals. I agree with Tim Beyers. ILLinois voters should take a closer look at their rep to congress and vote acordingly. chuyita

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2010, at 12:29 PM, cthakore wrote:

    Sen. Durbin is better off focusing on the more pressing problems in our country than worry about how certain companies are going to behave in internet suppressing countries. If he is that concerned about freedom of "communication", he should open up the doors of the rooms in the senate to let ALL senators express their points of view!

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2010, at 3:14 PM, Savannahboy wrote:

    Here come the Protectionists! This is none of our business. If Google wants to pull out of China then investors just need to decide how that will affect the discounted future cash flow of the company and buy or sell accordingly. Durbin and his chest beating are just another attempt for a crap senator to get some press. Wouldn't it be fun for someone to have the guts to stand up to one of these Senate committees and berate them for running this country into the ground. Unfortunately, that kind of bravado isn't good for business.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2010, at 3:32 PM, faktchekr wrote:

    Typical know it all elitist politician...Durban would be better off working on how to get people back to work instead of running around grandstanding about what private companies should or shouldn't do.

  • Report this Comment On February 10, 2010, at 3:48 PM, Turfscape wrote:

    "My problem is that Durbin's solution, if you can call it that, is cowardly. If the United States is concerned about freedom of expression among its trading partners, then statesmen need to debate and pass legislation that's clear and enforceable."

    I agree that Durbin offers nothing but grandstanding here, but please DON'T go putting ideas of embargo into their heads! Dear God that would be a damaging situation.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2010, at 12:50 PM, JSMBAPhD wrote:

    Excuse me, but the job of the US Senate is to ask questions. It is bizarre to equate one Senate hearing, in which the witnesses are from companies who don't like Chinese censorship, with McCarthyism. This is especially true since you haven't even heard the questions Durbin will ask.

    Very few Americans know or understand what McCarthyism was, or how widespread its effects were. The government side of McCarthyism was relatively small. But the hysteria ended up with *millions* of Americans being placed on a list of "undesirables" by private "Red Hunters." This list, based on the unverified accusations of people of doubtful qualifications, was sold to corporations to screen out suspect employees. The net effect was to damage national security, since US science lagged behind the Soviets. The nation experienced this as the Sputnik crisis (in which Soviets made it to space before the US), but that was just a manifestation of the problem.

    Calling something McCarthyite should not be done lightly. McCarthyism involves extreme imbalances of power, such as the government accusing an individual, not for example, the US government accusing the Chinese government (which is free to say, "Fine. Repay your debts now). It involves making serious accusations not for any wrongdoing but for thinking or believing ideas, and for talking to or associating with people of whom the government does not approve. And it involves making shadowy accusations that are so vague that they can't be defended against ("You belong to the ASPCA, so you're an animal lover, so you are affiliated with extremists who destroy animal research facilities. But you can clear yourself if only you make a clear declaration that you kill puppies just to watch them die.")

    This was not a good column.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2010, at 6:08 PM, PeteGall wrote:

    This article is closer to McCarthyism than anything Dick Durbin has done or said. Durbin is a principled and effective Senator and if you think internet censorship is okay , maybe you'd like to have it in the USA.

    You should know as you profess a knowledge of politics that China uses censorship to supress the dissent of minorities, just as it is trying to prevent our President from meeting with the dalai lama because he is the spiritual leader of Tibet a country that China invaded and is supressing the freedom of all Tibetans.

    The main reason you are attacking Durbin and many responders are following suit is that he is Democrat. This is just dirty politics you are playing and is much closer to the spirit of McCarthy than the actions you decry. Stupid.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2010, at 6:37 PM, Turfscape wrote:

    "if you think internet censorship is okay , maybe you'd like to have it in the USA."

    What a rational, non ad-hoc, non-fallacious debate point. Thank you, sir. You have set my sense of liberty ablaze! Shine on sweet freedom!

    "The main reason you are attacking Durbin and many responders are following suit is that he is Democrat."

    You'd be surprised, citizen. You'd be surprised...

    But, as long as we're here: why is it that it's not okay for China's government to exert control over it's citizens, but it IS okay for Sen. Durbin to do so?

    What is the point of his "investigation"? Of the companies doing business in China, have any of them been accused of engaging in illegal activities? If not, why should they be presenting themselves to a Senate committee for questioning? If Senator Durbin has a problem with China, why not question China? Why question those who have no say in, or influence over Chinese policy?

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2010, at 10:48 PM, saron1 wrote:

    Excuse me. A foreign government hacks the biggest holder of private information and pointers to world events and stopping this...you call "dirty work"??

    This time they did it to catch Tibetan human rights activists. Next time they'll do it to invade our privacy or create mis-information that could hurt all Americans. Maybe they already have.

    The entire US private sector and Capitalism itself are instruments to increase prosperity for all americans, NOTHING more. Durbin and Coburn are doing the people's work (though Coburn is otherwise a nut) and it is the obligation of ATT, Cisco, Twitter, Facebook.... to comply.

  • Report this Comment On February 13, 2010, at 12:23 AM, PeteGall wrote:

    "But, as long as we're here: why is it that it's not okay for China's government to exert control over it's citizens, but it IS okay for Sen. Durbin to do so?"

    Because China exerts it's control in brutal and violent means. You must have seen the the riots and brutal suppression that occurred recently or the massacre at Tiananmen square. China is not a democracy , the people of China have no choice. Surely we have a right to know to what extent American corporations are participating in internet censorship, just as we would have a right to know if they employ child labor in their foreign operations. Corporations are not above the law and morality. Oversight is the role of congress and any good citizen should know and respect that function. It might have proved useful in the years 2000-2006.

  • Report this Comment On February 17, 2010, at 3:27 PM, Steadyhanded wrote:

    Durbin is an idealistic kind of guy, but he needs to recognize that it can often interfere with effective policy. Right now, especially with China, we need effective policies and less idealism extolling the virtues of free speech and free trade.

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