Let us say, for instance, that, with great enthusiasm to visit such wonders as the Forbidden City or to gaze at those fabled clay soldiers, someone buys a plane ticket to the ever-so-mysterious People’s Republic of China. He sallies forth towards the unknown, and embarks both on an adventure and on an airplane. Suffering from a major case of jet-lag after a 13-hour-long flight, he falls headfirst on the hotel bed. So as to take his mind off of his nausea, he connects to the hotel’s Wi-Fi and decides to check his Gmail account or to watch a YouTube video. More knowledgeable or experienced readers in this matter will undoubtedly, understand that our hypothetical subject will find himself rather flustered at what will seem, at first, shamefully poor internet speed. Eventually, he will be cursing his naivety since this encounter with Chinese censorship could have been avoided by the timely purchase of a VPN service.
For most westerners, this reality, where a government would censor what content we can and cannot access, seems very distant. Indeed, the many humorous visual comparisons posted online between Winnie the Pooh and Xi Jinping, combined with the fact that, in 2018, the live-action movie of Winnie the Pooh was banned in China, make a lot of us laugh. However, this laughter often carries an undertone of empathy for those who live under such a regime and of relief for the fact that our country is different.
Those of us with a constitution that enshrined our right to freedom of speech may breathe a sigh of relief. For example, if a government operating under such constitution were to prevent a company from operating because it printed pro-opposition propaganda, this would be, undeniably, a clear constitutional violation. However, what would happen if an outside state that doesn’t respect this fundamental right was able to exert pressure on firms to self-censor and to censor their users?
China is a giant market that many tech and media firms would profit greatly in entering. However, their biggest obstacles often are the blue-pencil-wielding bureaucrats that decide what content is permissible and what is not. As such, firms wishing to expand to China or to maintain their business there may find it profitable to do some adjustments on how they operate in order to surmount this Great Wall.
For example, many Hollywood movies, competing to get into the limited number of foreign films that can be aired in China each year, are criticized for “watering-down” some more sensitive topics that, if kept unchanged, could cause the film to be struck down by Chinese censors.
And, more recently, due to the chaotic situation in Hong Kong, there have been a few incidents which have sparked outrage online: The NBA was heavily criticized for their swift condemnation of a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protesters by one of their team’s general managers. In addition, video-game company Blizzard came under fire after banning players for expressing their support for the Hong Kong protests.
Then, one might think that, perhaps, there is a normative argument to be had about whether or not a constitution that enshrines the right to freedom of speech should or shouldn’t prevent corporations from undertaking this sort of behaviour which stem, not from a nation’s own state, but, rather, from the economic pressure exerted by foreign dictatorship.
If you are opposed to this sort of behaviour, fortunately for you, there is no need to sit around demanding government intervention or naively hoping that profit-seeking companies will stop acting in a profit-seeking way. Indeed, better than trying to teach moral lessons to corporations, you are able to vote with your money. If you find it reprehensible that these companies would bow to oppressive regimes, then through the power of the boycott, you can join hands with the protesters in Hong Kong and with those unable to ungag themselves and make it so that the profitable route for companies to take is the one of defiance, not submission to evil.
Freedom of speech is of paramount importance to the development of a society. If you yearn for a society in which corporations value the protection of that fundamental right and consider it a priority to fight for, then there is already much power in your hands to contribute towards that goal.