Private Investor: Google has given me an ethical dilemma

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The Independent Online

Now, I like to start with a joke, even if it's an old one, as this is. Sadly I can't find who first cracked it so I'll just have to apologise for my plagiarism in advance. Actually it's not so much a joke as a sort of play on words. It goes like this: whenever Clare Short wrestles with her conscience she usually wins.

Well, when I heard it first it was much better told than that, but you take the point. When it comes to my investments I've only really had one area that I couldn't bring myself to invest in: tobacco. Try as I might I just couldn't persuade myself that there was any good reason, apart from making money, why I should put my money towards helping a company such as British American Tobacco. Had I bought shares in the firm I might have done well out of it. But it is an investment that I just couldn't see as ethical in any way.

Not so the big pharmaceutical companies, who have at least brought forward some good for mankind. You can argue about what price they should sell their potions for, although I think it's more of a political issue than a corporate one. I can even see the point of arms companies, although I haven't bothered to invest in them. After all, countries do need guns to defend themselves from aggression. But I thought tobacco was the single big no-go area when it came to the portfolio.

Until now. I turned on the radio on Wednesday morning to hear the Today programme telling me that Google was co-operating with the Chinese government to censor websites. Google! The very last people I had expected to pull a trick like that. What ghastly behaviour. I wasn't all starry-eyed when I bought shares in Google last year. Whatever its origins and ethical credentials, it is perfectly clear that this is just another big corporation, albeit one that seems imbued with the "can do" attitude normally found in much smaller organisations. If I was betting (and I suppose, given where I've put my money, that is, in a sense, what I am doing), I'd expect Google to beat Microsoft in the medium term. The market seems to agree with me, and my Google shares are showing a healthy 92 per cent paper profit.

That profit has been a pleasant surprise; the collaboration with the Chinese regime rather less so. So now I have an ethical dilemma. Do I take my profits, not bad in any case, and run? Or do I continue to stay invested in Google, conscious that they are doing the wrong thing?

The truth is that I'd rather not think about it. I've had a look at the Google case and it seems rational enough. At the moment, if you wish to run a locally based web business in China, service providers must agree to censor themselves. Google stood against this pressure before now. However, this has placed it at a disadvantage against the likes of Yahoo, which has been in cahoots with the Chinese censors for the last three years.

Now Google needs to expand in China and it argues that agreeing to censor websites with material the Chinese government regards as sensitive - such as those with references to democracy and Taiwan - will speed up the Google service, currently impeded by official Chinese filters. Thus can Google gain a greater foothold in the burgeoning Chinese market.

Well, I wonder about that. I wonder whether there might not have been some other way to speed up the service. I also think that there must be plenty of Chinese who would be prepared to wait a few minutes more for the truth rather than some government-inspired propaganda.

Google's done the wrong thing. The market pushed the shares down when the news came through, by about 1 per cent. I didn't sell. I think I ought to.

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