How’s That Stakeholder Codetermination Working Out? Google Staff Protest Censored China Search Engine

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A current mantra is that we’re all made better off by the varied stakeholders in a company chipping in with how the company works and operates. The workers should have a say, the customers, those who live around it, government, the unions – hey, why not? Well, perhaps because a company doesn’t belong to those stakeholders but that’s just to insist upon shareholder supremacy. So, perhaps because getting the stakeholders involved is inefficient? Or even perhaps just because it depends which stakeholders have the power – they might end up screwing the others.

As with this where Google staff are insisting that the company shouldn’t go ahead with a censored search engine to be deployed in China:

Googlers have, over the past few months, been fighting for a louder voice and greater self-determination within a company that’s increasingly gone astray of its bare-minimum unofficial motto, “don’t be evil”—and more often than not, they’re winning. But there’s still one big fly in the ointment.

Around here we’d argue that if self determination is your thing save up and buy the company or go set up your own. Demanding that privilege without also accepting the risks that go with it strikes us a more than a little greedy. We here love our self determination for example. But we also don’t insist that someone pay us $150k a year to enjoy it. With that self determination comes the necessity of living off what we can make, not a secure salary.

But, you know.

The project, code-named Dragonfly, would block certain websites and search terms determined by the Chinese government — a move that, according to a growing number of workers at Google, is tantamount to enabling “state surveillance.” “We are among thousands of employees who have raised our voices for months. International human rights organizations and investigative reporters have also sounded the alarm, emphasizing serious human rights concerns and repeatedly calling on Google to cancel the project,” said the letter’s signatories,

Well, super. But which group of stakeholders in a company should have primacy? Again, around here we’d argue the shareholders, they do own it. But once we expand the group, which? How about those Chinese consumers, don’t they have a say? Think on it. If they use the new service then that means they want to use the new service. Yet Google employees are demanding that this group of stakeholders shouldn’t be allowed to have what they desire. Who should win here?

Google employees have renewed their public protests against “Project Dragonfly,” a censored and surveillance-enabling search app that Google is reportedly building for the Chinese market. An open letter, published on Medium today, says Dragonfly would make Google complicit in human rights abuses by the Chinese government. It urges Google leadership to cancel the project and accuses them of ignoring repeated employee complaints.

There’s also that little thought that, well, shouldn’t Google obey the law? We’d all insist they must obey US law to operate in the US. Isn’t it a bit colonial to insist they should not obey Chinese law in China?

This employee self determination thing, the entire stakeholder idea in fact. Once we move away from shareholder primacy, how do we sort through these varied claims? What voting method do we use? With what weighting? Do current customers get a voice? Or do we expand it to potential ones? It all becomes a rather slippery concept, doesn’t it.

Oh, and there’s one idea we can kill off entirely. It’s claimed that stakeholder power increases the efficiency of the company. Yet it is also generally agreed that the Nordic corporate model produces the most efficient companies. The Nordic model expressly insisting upon no stakeholder involvement, it being designed to produce shareholder primacy. Heck, they don’t even let the management onto the board.

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Jonathan Harston

If I wanted to make widgets, and set up a company that made widgets, and employed people to make widgets, then my employees started telling me the company should be making foobars instead, I’d respond: but *I* want to make widgets, that’s the whole and entire point of why I set up a widget-making company. What then? I leave, and set up another company doing the stuff that *I* want to do, or do I kick out the foobar makers and tell them that if they want to make foorbars, *they* can go and set up a foobar making company.

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Actually, workers often exert an influence on their employer. Unions, of course, have done it for decades, though their importance has diminished, and often their exertions did not ultimately prove to be to anyone’s benefit. Google largely has a very educated workforce, most of whom could readily find other employment. They’ve got the power to walk away, and of course, that implies they’ve got some power to influence the employer who may not want them to walk away. Do I think we should encourage the notion that all sorts of stakeholders should get a say? No, probably not. But it… Read more »

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Those Google guys left it a bit late to complain about censorship: “Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe.”