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Googling Human Rights Lesson Plan

Do global information gatekeepers like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google have a responsibility to protect and promote human rights?


International companies are expected to play by the legal rules of the countries where they do business.  But what if playing by those rules means that companies are helping repressive governments to control or harm their citizens?  The question becomes particularly critical when the businesses in question are information gatekeepers, such as Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. 

Of course, these cyber-giants are businesses, not political activists. Yet as our global information gatekeepers, these companies play an undeniably central role in affecting how internet users view the world and their freedom to connect with others.  Moreover, their tools can be used by repressive regimes to silent dissent and suppress dissidents.  Does that special role come with the responsibility to ensure that their services are used to promote, or at least not curtail, human rights?


A company might be said to be complicit in human rights abuses in a variety of ways:

  • Direct complicity - Corporations commit human rights abuses jointly with State agents 
  • Indirect complicity - A corporation finances or provides tools facilitating violations of human rights
  • Incidental complicity - Complicity results from the mere presence of the corporation in an area where human rights abuses are pandemic.  The presence of the corporation, and/or its failure to protest, may be taken to provide a public affirmation of the acceptability of the practices violating human rights, thus contributing to their success or continuance.



  • Understanding of the types of services in question (web search, email, blogging software, video/photo sharing) and how these relate to potential human rights abuses.
  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • Awareness of some of the ways Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google have dealt with the challenges of human rights. (much of which is available from the readings)



Most of these are short and intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem.





Do: Ask students to think about and discus the following questions:

  • What might be morally problematic about a corporate social responsibility policy that strictly obeys local law?
  • Does the special nature of the products and services that information gateway companies sell entail a set of special moral obligations for these companies? 
  • Does a corporation have the moral responsibility to take proactive action to prevent human rights abuses in countries in which they operate? 
  • People sometimes have different ideas about what constitutes human rights violations.  Does it make a difference whether the actions these companies are complicit in are done by democratic or non-democratic government?
  • If you were running one of these international technology companies, what might be an effective ethical response to these concerns?
  • What, if any, are your responsibilities as a user of an information technology corporation that you believe is complicit in human rights abuses overseas?


* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.