Empowerment or censorship?

Pub date August 29, 2006
WriterTina Rodia

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Amnesty International last month launched a campaign demanding that online search companies stop complying with Internet censorship in China. The campaign targets Bay Area search engines Google and Yahoo!, along with Microsoft. With 105 million Chinese citizens plugging into cyberspace, can global search companies resist China’s technological marketplace? Should citizens lack global, albeit incomplete, access to the Internet because of the government’s repression of some information?
Amnesty’s Irrepressible campaign targets corporate accountability, a departure from its usual focus on human rights violations by governments. Irrepressible.info features an online pledge calling on governments and companies to respect the Internet as a source for information dissemination. The pledge will be presented this fall at a United Nations conference on the future of the Internet. The campaign also advocates to make censored material available for publication on personal blogs and Web sites.
The goal of Irrepressible, Amnesty’s corporate action network coordinator Tony Cruz told the Guardian, “is to put pressure on these companies to end the use of Internet censorship, which infringes on the basic human rights of the Chinese people.”
Google launched a censored Chinese search engine called Google.cn. Microsoft shut down a blog at the government’s request. Yahoo! provided Chinese authorities the private e-mail information of its users, resulting in prison sentences for two journalists. Irrepressible.info calls for the release of one, Shi Tao, who received a 10-year sentence for sending information on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in an e-mail. Amnesty has not let these matters go quietly and has taken its concerns to the heart of the companies: their annual shareholder meetings.
On May 25, Cruz addressed Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel and founder Jerry Yang, asking if the company would “call on the Chinese government to release Shi Tao, Li Zhi, and other innocent victims of China’s online repression.” Yahoo! execs never directly answered Cruz’s request. When asked about the issue recently by the Guardian, a Yahoo! spokesperson issued a statement saying the company is “pursuing a number of initiatives” to address the concerns.
But Yahoo! no longer operates in China, at least not directly. Last year Yahoo! sold its China subsidiary to Chinese e-commerce specialist Alibaba, although Yahoo! holds a seat on its board. It is no longer necessary for Yahoo! to censor prohibited words, as searches on international search engines are filtered on China’s end. That is Alibaba’s responsibility.
But for Google.cn, censoring is up to Google. At Google’s shareholder meeting in early May, Cruz addressed cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, asking if Google planned on assuring its customers that the company will not favor profit over human rights. The cofounders, in response, pointed their fingers at Yahoo! Brin explained that Google.com is still available uncensored in China and is used less than Google.cn. But Google spokespeople have publicized their position on China since the start of Google.cn, including the issues Amnesty targets in its campaign.
Before Google launched its Chinese search engine, Google.com was available worldwide, including in China. But the program had to travel through eight Chinese Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, which control how much information a user can access. Google’s search engine slowed until service was all but stalled. Access to searches for “Tibet,” “Falun Gong,” and “Tiananmen Square” were denied.
This created two problems for Google: users were turning to faster China-based search engines, and results were filtered without disclosure to its users. Google faced an issue that touched on its most fundamental commitment — satisfying the interests of users by expanding access to information. After lengthy consideration, Google launched Google.cn, a China-based search engine that discloses to its users when information is censored.
How responsible is it for IT companies to curtail information dissemination for the sake of profit? In testimony before the Committee on International Relations, Google’s vice president of global communications and public affairs, Elliot Schrage, explained that Google was one of the last Internet search giants to enter the Chinese market. Also, he noted that many countries censor material on the Internet, including the United States, which once banned child pornography sites in Pennsylvania. France filters neo-Nazi content from its search engines. Germany blocks access to foreign-based hate sites. Iran filters political sites that are critical of the government. Why focus on China?
“Because,” Cruz says, “China is profitable. The Internet in the Asia Pacific Rim will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the next five to ten years. IT companies know it, and they have been quick to acquiesce to the needs of the Chinese government in order to grab a piece of the pie.”
Amnesty International has not overlooked the fact that Google has struggled with its principles over this decision. And it recognizes that of Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft, only Google has met Amnesty’s call for transparency in filtered searches. Wouldn’t Google be doing more of a disservice to the Chinese by not providing a Chinese-based search engine? According to Cruz, no.
“This type of censorship has never led to anything productive,” Cruz says. “It has always been used to oppress the views of those who challenged the status quo. When these companies say ‘a censored search engine is better than none at all,’ I believe this is a slap in the face to the Chinese men and women who fight this repressive government.”
While Amnesty International continues to draw attention to China’s government, China is very much a part of the global economy. With China in the World Trade Organization, can companies like Google resist joining the rest of the global community? Google has called on the US government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade, but censorship has not stopped them from entering China.
The US government opposes the United Nations business norms declaration, which decrees that companies are obligated under international law to protect human rights. The US delegation states that human rights abuses are the result of national governments, not private enterprises. With their own country openly questioning the role of companies in overseas human rights abuses, is it fair to call these companies complicit for following the rules of trade? SFBG