Google Blogoscoped

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Amnesty International on China Censorship

Amnesty International released a PDF titled “Undermining Freedom of Expression in China: The role of Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google.” The paper accompanies the launch of the campaign. Following are excerpts from the paper, with permission (footnotes have been removed and can be found in the original document; partly, my emphasis).


Although there are other Internet companies worthy of investigation for involvement and assistance in the Chinese government’s Internet censorship, as well as the suppression of dissent, the focus of this report is limited to Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google.

All three companies have, in one way or another, facilitated or colluded in the practice of censorship in China. Yahoo! has provided the Chinese authorities with private and confidential information about its users. This included personal data that has been used to convict at least two journalists, considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience. Microsoft has admitted to shutting down a blog on the basis of a government request. Google has launched a censored version of its international search engine in China. All three companies have demonstrated a disregard for their own internally driven and proclaimed policies. They have made promises to themselves, their employees, their customers and their investors which they failed to uphold in the face of business opportunities and pressure from the Chinese government. This raises doubts about which statements made by these organisations can be trusted and which ones are public relations gestures.

Of the three companies, Google has come closest to acknowledging publicly that its practices are at odds with its principles, and to making a commitment to increase transparency by informing users in China when a web search has been filtered. Although there are many other transparency options that the company should consider, these are welcome first steps. While each of Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google may be considered to be complicit in the Chinese government’s denial of freedom of information, Yahoo!’s actions have, in particular, assisted the suppression of dissent with severe consequences for those affected. The company allowed its Chinese partner to pass evidence to the authorities that was subsequently used to convict individuals, at least two of whom received long prison sentences for peacefully exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression. Thus Yahoo! appears to have failed to honour its responsibility to ensure that its own operations and those of its partners are not complicit in human rights abuses. This is in breach of widely recognised international human rights principles for companies.

In defending their actions in China, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google maintain they are under an obligation to comply with local law. They argue that although it is not an ideal situation, their presence in China is a force for good. They assert that without their input, censorship would still take place and that censored information is better than no information at all. The reality is that the Internet has had an established presence in China for over a decade, which means that the world’s major Internet companies can no longer be considered to be helping bring the Internet to China. Instead, they are attempting to gain an increasing share of a rapidly growing market in the knowledge that it will expand, with or without their presence. In effect their activities are facilitating and sanctioning government censorship rather than challenging it. Companies appear to have been all too ready to accept the limitations imposed rather than exerting pressure for legislative and policy change.

The need to comply with local law should not obscure the fact that these companies operate in a global economy regulated at different levels. Multinational corporations must consider local law, laws of the country in which the company is incorporated, the vast array of international law, best practice and internal policies and procedures. (...) Amnesty International believes that there are steps that Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and other Internet companies can and should take to enable them to act in accordance with international human rights norms. While the following recommendations are framed in the specific context of China, the same policy principles should be applied by these companies across their global operations.

Recommendations for action

Amnesty International calls on Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google and other Internet companies operating in China to:

  1. Publicly commit to honouring the freedom of expression provision in the Chinese constitution and lobby for the release of all cyber-dissidents and journalists imprisoned solely for the peaceful and legitimate exercise of their freedom of expression.
  2. Be transparent about the filtering process used by the company in China and around the world and make public what words and phrases are filtered and how these words are selected.
  3. Make publicly available all agreements between the company and the Chinese government with implications for censorship of information and suppression of dissent.
  4. Exhaust all judicial remedies and appeals in China and internationally before complying with state directives where these have human rights implications. Make known to the government the company’s principled opposition to implementing any requests or directives which breach international human rights norms whenever such pressures are applied.
  5. Develop an explicit human rights policy that states the company’s support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and complies with the UN Norms for Business and the UN Global Compact’s principle on avoiding complicity in human rights violations.
  6. Clarify to what extent human rights considerations are taken into account in the processes and procedures that the company undertakes in deciding whether and how the company’s values and reputation will be compromised if it assists governments to censor access to the Internet.
  7. Exercise leadership in promoting human rights in China through lobbying the government for legislative and social reform in line with international human rights standards, through seeking clarification of the existing legal framework and through adopting business practices that encourage China to comply with its human rights obligations.
  8. Participate in and support the outcomes of a multi-stakeholder process to develop a set of guidelines relating to the Internet and human rights issues, as well as mechanisms for their implementation and verification, as part of broader efforts to promote recognition of the body of human rights principles applicable to companies. (...)

Freedom of expression – a fundamental human right

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which is a prerequisite to the enjoyment of all human rights. Where it is suppressed other human rights violations follow. Freedom of expression has been variously described as crucial for the freedom to develop and discuss ideas in the search for truth and understanding (sometimes evoked as the ’marketplace of ideas’), autonomy and self-fulfilment of the individual, and effective participation in the political life of a democratic society. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: ’Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. (...)

While the primary responsibility for respecting and protecting human rights, such as freedom of expression, rests with governments, companies also have human rights responsibilities within their spheres of activity and influence. (...)

The argument that the mere presence of the world’s leading Internet companies in China will aid economic liberalisation which will automatically lead to political freedom, is spurious. Sound economic development requires full exercise of freedom of information and expression. Censorship denies the ability to question the model of economic development being pursued and the policies which have fuelled deepening inequality. As Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China points out, ’engagement and presence in the market alone will not inevitably lead to any particular result except for market access for the companies. Corporate engagement and presence in China will contribute to greater reform and openness only if it is responsible and coherent.’ (...)

From denial to acknowledgement

Companies that are hit by a reputational crisis that they are unprepared for often go through a phase of denial and defensiveness. This has been the case with many sectors including: a) footwear and apparel companies in relation to sweatshop conditions; b) the cocoa industry with regard to forced labour in certain parts of Africa; c) the pharmaceutical sector in relation to pricing and distribution of drugs in developing countries; d) the extractive sector on the issue of revenue transparency and on relationships with security forces in zones of conflict; e) bio-technology companies with regard to bio-diversity and genetically modified organisms; f) the food and beverages industry in relation to the impacts of its products on health; g) the diamond industry on the issue of armed conflict in diamondmining areas of Africa.

Many of the companies that have found themselves exposed on these issues, and that have become a target of public pressure as a result, have subsequently begun to address the problem. Often this has meant cooperating with other companies in the same sector or across sectors, and sometimes also with governments and NGOs.

This briefing has illustrated that some Internet hardware and software companies are clearly in denial when it comes to addressing the human rights impacts of their operations in countries where there is a lack of freedom of expression and where dissent is suppressed.


Please see the the original PDF for more.


Blog  |  Forum     more >> Archive | Feed | Google's blogs | About


This site unofficially covers Google™ and more with some rights reserved. Join our forum!