Suppose that Google censored radical ideas without anyone knowing it because they believed that part of their role as a member of the corporate establishment was to protect capitalism. Would that be ethical of them? Is it their right?

First, a bookkeeping detail. Some people may not like to talk about corporations as having rights, duties or whatnot because they want to keep a clean distinction between corporations and persons. For anyone who thinks that way, substitute talk of management, boards of directors, owners or whatnot for "corporations" in what follows.

With that out of the way, I'm going to offer a parable and change the question. Suppose someone has read my postings on this site, followed things I've said on social media, and has decided that people with my views shouldn't be teaching in public universities. He decides to befriend me; he earns my trust and becomes a close confidant, all in the hope of finding out things he can use to embarrass me or get in the way of my career.

Does this person have a right to act this way? In various senses of "have a right," the answer is yes. Is it right? I'd guess most of us think the answer is no. What we're considering is deception and betrayal of trust. Sometimes this sort of thing might be acceptable; for example, we think that undercover police operations are often justified. But even in those cases, I think it's a mistake to see the role of the informant as entirely free of moral costs.

The first point, then, is that asking whether some person or some corporation has a right to act in a certain way isn't the only relevant moral question. And asking whether the behavior is ethical runs the risk of mixing up questions about explicit codes of conduct (say, standards of professional ethics) with more general but less systematic issues of right and wrong. It wouldn't be right for my false "friend" to do what we've imagined, whether or not he has a right to, and whether or not there's some explicit ethical code that it would violate. Absent very good reasons, people shouldn't abuse one another's trust.

In your hypothetical case, the first thing that comes to mind is that Google has earned public trust by representing itself as a neutral source of information, and it's done a good enough job of earning this trust that we've come to rely on it for honest searches. If it came to light that Google was secretly censoring searches, most of us would think that our trust had been abused. Most of us would say that it wasn't right, whether or not the corporation had the right to do it. Compare: a search engine company may have the right to order search results in a way that suits the company's financial interests rather than the user's likely needs, but when it comes to light that a company has done this, people don't react favorably. Telling them that the company has the right to do this doesn't get at their complaint. Most people, I'd guess, would feel that they had been deceived and that they shouldn't be taken advantage of in this way.

So to sum up: a company might well have a right to do what you've described, but that's less morally interesting that it seems to be. We often do better in thinking about such things to concentrate less on high-flown notions like "rights" or what's "ethical." More familiar and less theoretical idea like honesty, deceit, trust, and the like often do a better job of getting at what worries us. Using that approach, there's no obvious reason to doubt our sense that what you've imagined would be wrong.

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