Tearing Down the Great (Fire) Wall
In this column in December, I wrote about potential threats to internet freedom in the U.S. Those pale in comparison to dramatic abuses of internet freedom currently occurring in China and other parts of the globe. While high tech companies have long praised the internet’s capacity to promote freedom and democracy, many have been complicit in efforts by repressive regimes to restrict internet freedom.
For example in China alone,
1) Secret police demanded Yahoo help them identify political dissidents who sent some high profile e-mails critical of the government through their Yahoo accounts. After Yahoo complied, some of the dissidents were arrested and are now serving up to 10 years in prison.
2) Microsoft has taken down blogs in which Chinese democracy activists criticized their government.
3) Google has voluntarily self-censored a Chinese version of its search engine called Google.cn, filtering out results for searches on terms such as democracy and human rights, in order to keep Chinese authorities from blocking access to the site.
4) Cisco faces criticism for supplying China with equipment used to censor and monitor internet use and for marketing equipment to Chinese law enforcement agencies.
China’s aggressive efforts to restrict internet freedom appear to be strengthening further. According to the Financial Times, just last month the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling politburo held a special session on the internet, where President Hu Jintao said the party must act to “purify the internet environment” and “extend the battlefront of propaganda and ideological work” to the internet. At the meeting, President Hu advocated the creation of a new branch of authorities to address internet challenges. Hu told the gathering that “Whether or not we can actively use and effectively manage the internet…will affect national cultural information security and the long-term stability of the state.”
In light of these challenges, some companies have chosen to limit their operations in China to avoid partnering with the government’s internet crackdown. In one notable example, AOL turned down a major deal with a Chinese computer maker because executives were unwilling to comply with authorities requests to censor searches and gather personal data on Chinese AOL users. Despite launching Google.cn, Google has chosen not to offer its Gmail e-mail service in China to avoid requests from authorities for personal information on its users.
Companies that have tried to accommodate China’s requests have faced strong criticism, and not just from human rights groups. Last year, executives from Cisco, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, were excoriated by House members at a Congressional hearing on their activities in China. The actions have also upset company employees and customers, and prompted Google co-founder Sergey Brin to recently note, “On a business level, that decision to censor [Google.cn]…was a net negative.”
To try to help companies address this issue more proactively, Trillium Asset Management has joined a collaborative effort of businesses, human rights groups, academics, and others seeking to create principles to “guide company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights.” The process, facilitated by Business for Social Responsibility and the Center for Democracy and Technology, includes other socially responsible investment firms; human rights groups like Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch; researchers like the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School; and company participants Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and U.K. cell phone company Vodaphone. The goal is to work together through 2007 to create a code of conduct that will help the participating companies (and hopefully others) to better protect human rights, freedom of expression, and user privacy on the internet. Whether Chinese bloggers will be able to write about our efforts anytime soon remains to be seen.