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?
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!