Thursday, February 09, 2006

Capitalism againts Human Right

US govt criticises companies for compliance with China

02/02/2006 by Ben Tanner

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The US Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a briefing yesterday to discuss the issue of human rights and the internet in China. Particular criticism fell on US corporations - namely Microsoft, Yahoo and Google - which have cooperated with the country's internet censorship. The politicians who comprise the Caucus accused the companies of placing economic benefits over human rights such as freedom of expression. The companies were invited to take part in the briefing, though none attended.

The Caucus believes that the recent economic relationship, including the growth of the internet and other technologies, between the US and China could lead to more political openness and freedom of expression in China. The Caucus is concerned, though, that these US corporations are inhibiting these developments by complying with China's censorship. Representative Tom Lantos put it more strongly: 'They caved in to Beijing's demands for the sake of profits.'

Microsoft and Yahoo, the Caucus said, have shut down journalists' blogs at the request of the Chinese government. Yahoo also last year disclosed information about Chinese journalist Shi Tao which led to his arrest and a 10-year prison sentence.

Most recently, Google launched its China portal, which complies with China's internet censorship regulations. Searches for 'democracy', 'human rights' and 'Tiananmen Square', for example, bring heavily censored results.

Following the briefing, in which Rep. Lantos said the companies should be 'ashamed' for not sending representatives, Microsoft and Yahoo issued a joint statement to the Caucus. The companies expressed concern for internet censorship in China and assured the Caucus that they did not consider their compliance in China to be 'business-as-usual', but the unfortunate starting block from which they could make reforms. The companies also suggested that the problem would be most effectively solved not by corporations, but by the governments of the US and China.

The Caucus will hold another meeting on this topic on 15 February. Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have said they plan to attend.

Tech giants attacked for web censorship stance

Cisco, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! all in the firing line...
By Anne Broache

Published: Thursday 2 February 2006

Politicians on Wednesday attacked Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! for declining to appear at a briefing about China's internet censorship and called for a new law to outlaw compliance with such requirements.

The four technology companies said earlier this week that they were not able to schedule an appearance with short notice but would testify at a similar House of Representatives hearing set for 15 February.

Representative Tom Lantos, the California Democrat who is co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which organised the briefing, said: "These massively successful high-tech companies, which couldn't bring themselves to send their representatives to this meeting today, should be ashamed.

"With all their power and influence, wealth and high visibility, they neglected to commit to the kind of positive action that human rights activists in China take every day. They caved in to Beijing's demands for the sake of profits, or whatever else they choose to call it."

Because his caucus is not an actual congressional committee, it does not have the power to compel companies to testify at its hearings. The US House of Representatives International Relations Committee does have that force, however.

Representative Christopher Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the subcommittee holding the 15 February hearing, showed up late at Wednesday's briefing to issue a reminder that he and his colleagues are working on a draft legislation related to the foreign censorship matter.

He said: "Our request to these companies is: reverse yourselves; you can."

A draft of the legislation was not ready on Wednesday. But a spokesman for Smith said the proposal would be likely to require US internet service providers to locate their email servers outside of oppressive countries, establish a code of conduct for companies doing business with such regimes and set up a global internet freedom office within the State Department to co-ordinate an international strategy.

Cisco, for its part, distributed a statement at Tuesday's briefing confirming its attendance at Smith's upcoming hearing. The company acknowledged again that it sells its routers in China but that their inherent features, including the ability to filter content, are no different from those sold in any other country, including the US.

Microsoft and Yahoo! issued a joint statement in which they encouraged the US government to step up and take a leadership role in opening "government to government" dialogue with China and other countries "where internet content is treated more restrictively". Google's senior policy counsel, Andrew McLaughlin, echoed that idea in a blog entry and apologised for Google's absence, which he put down to "previously scheduled commitments".

The absence of the tech companies left Wednesday's briefing heavy on commentary from human rights activists and a representative from a US-China governmental advisory panel.

Several of those representatives accused each of the companies of squelching cyber dissidents or caving into the Chinese government in some way. Google, which launched a censorship-friendly version of its search engine in China last week, was a particular magnet for criticism.

The search giant's "current co-operation with the Chinese government on this matter also has prevented the Chinese government from having to respond to complaints from Chinese internet users that they are being denied access to the info they wish to obtain", said Carolyn Bartholomew, acting chairwoman of the congressionally appointed US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. She said China has the most sophisticated internet-filtering system in the world and tens of thousands of "internet police" on its payroll.

Bartholomew and several of the human rights representatives called for new legislation that would penalise companies that aided in censorship activities - an idea that had Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, the briefing's chief organiser, nodding in agreement.

At the very least, Congress needs to pass legislation that would prohibit companies from turning over customer names to the Chinese government, Tim Malinowski of Human Rights Watch argued. He was referring largely to a recent incident in which Yahoo! was accused of turning over personal email records belonging to a Chinese journalist, leading to his conviction for leaking state secrets and a decade-long prison sentence.

John Palfrey, director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, cautioned that new laws should only come into play if the technology industry can't work out the problems on its own.

Instead, he argued, Congress should encourage the industry to develop a set of guiding principles for companies - what he called a "common ethical pathway".

Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat who sits on the human rights caucus, appeared briefly to appeal to the absentee companies.

She said: "This may be a time for a principle stand, because when you make a principle stand now, today, tomorrow the world will be open to so many who are now suffering under the oppression of censorship. So I would encourage my friends in the world of technology... that this is the time to cherish the Bill of Rights more than you've ever cherished it before."

Anne Broache writes for CNET

Capitalism againts Human Right


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