Amnesty International has released a report titled "Undermining Freedom of Expression in China." (Click here for the press release (79.2K PDF); and Click here for the FULL REPORT (503.5K PDF).) The report lays out an argument for the way in which Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google "have, through their actions, directly and admittedly contradicted their values and shared policies" by complying with Chinese government censorship policies - and in one case, surveillance demands. Amnesty makes a compelling argument that these three companies "are facilitating and sanctioning government censorship rather than challenging it," and suggests concrete steps that these companies "can and should take to enable them to act in accordance with international human rights norms." Those steps are:
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 processused 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.
Another human rights organization, for whom I have been doing some work as a consultant, will be releasing a more data-heavy, in-depth report full of screenshots, tables, and appendices, with more concrete data about the why and how of exactly what has happened, which I think will be of great interest to geeks and journalists. It provides screenshots of exactly how each of these companies censors content, a comparative analysis of censorship on Google.cn, Yahoo! China and MSN's new Chinese search engine. (As others have also concluded, Yahoo! wins as the heaviest censor of the three.) We've included quite a lot of information and quotes reflecting Chinese Internet users' perspectives on censorship - which are complex, and which I will say more about later in this blog post. Exactly when that report will be released is beyond my control but I hope it will be released quite soon because it's been difficult holding back from scooping the report on this blog.
Meanwhile, last week, all of the major human rights organizations signed on to a letter endorsing the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), the bill introduced by Congressman Chris Smith in February after the congressional hearings where Cisco, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google were called to the carpet. I think the human rights organizations are doing some great work in demanding these companies live up to their alleged values. However while I am not completely opposed to any legislation in theory, I remain very uncomfortable with this legislation in its current form.
GOFA has been substantially amended since it was first introduced. Here is a PDF of the newly amdended Global Online Freedom Act (108.3K PDF). For comparison, click here for the early version of the bill and click here for my critique of it.
The amended version is somewhat more realistic, though my concerns about the sharing of Chinese user info with the U.S. government still stand - if Americans don't want the DOJ to have access to their user information, why should anybody else? But my main concern with GOFA has to do with the way in which it frames the whole issue of corporate responsibility and Internet censorship. The bill would create a new Office of Internet Freedom in the State Department, which would then designate a list of "Internet-restricting countries." The legislation's ensuing provisions only pertain to company operations in those listed countries, making no attempt to address the fact that Internet and telecoms companies are more and more frequently caught between the over-reach of government power and user rights pretty much everywhere, including the U.S.
This approach is not only hypocritical and arrogant, but potentially dangerous. Governments of every stripe - be it dictatorship, autocracy, theocracy, electoral democracy - are leaning on Internet and telecoms companies to compromise citizens' privacy, freedom of speech, and access to information. (The latest India censorship situation is a new case in point, with ISP's being ordered to block blogs wholesale.) Sure, there is no comparison between the U.S. and China in terms of free-speech protections and privacy. But the the U.S. government has lately been asking internet and telecoms companies to compromise user data without our knowledge, and we even have some battles at the state government level over un-transparent and arbitrary government censorship. Internet and telecoms companies in ANY country have the potential to assist ANY government in quietly eroding our rights. Legislation that does not acknowledge the need to require companies operating EVERYWHERE protect ALL Internet users from ANY AND ALL government encroachment of their universally recognized rights to free speech will be viewed as hypocritical if not hostile by many of the people whose are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the legislation in the first place.
I've just spent the past 10 days in China (attending an off-the-record conference, working on longer-term projects that won't benefit from being scooped prematurely, and seeing people who don't want their lives and work to be blogged... which is why I haven't blogged much of anything about the trip, and why many people haven't even known I've been in China). I've met with local Internet entrepreneurs, bloggers, Westerners doing business here in the Chinese Internet sector, some diplomats, and some low-level bureaucrats. I'm struck by the degree of disconnect between what the international human rights and free speech community is intending to do, and the way the criticisms of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are perceived here on the ground. While the leading international free speech and human rights activists view corporate collaboration in Chinese censorship as part of a global problem which will have a major impact on the future of the internet and free speech worldwide, most people in China who are aware of the issue see the debate mainly in terms of whether or not Internet companies should engage in China. They also see it as part of a larger political agenda to demonize China, or as an effort by Americans to tell the Chinese how to run their country. (See the essay by Chinese blogger Michael Anti, himself no fan of censorship being victim of it himself: "The freedom of Chinese netizens is not up to the Americans.")
On the other hand, in Beijing I heard a lot of frustration from Chinese internet entrepreneurs about the heavy costs that censorship imposes on their business, and frustration from foreign businesspeople that arbitrary, un-transparent and un-accountable censorship creates an unfair business playing field in which political acumen becomes as or more important than the quality of one's products or services. Many people in the bureaucracy say they would like their country to be governed more by rule-of-law rather than rule-by-political-whim, because they feel that the former is much better for China's economy in the long run. When I talked to people about the Internet censorship and surveillance issue as a global problem rather than just a China problem, there was a great deal more enthusiasm about working towards solutions. Many people I spoke with agreed it would be ideal if the Chinese government could be convinced to change the way in which it conducts censorship, so that there is documentation, accountability, and unreasonable censorship can be appealed. Businesspeople also tended to agree it would be ideal if the Chinese government would openly take responsibility for what is being censored, rather than foisting the responsibility - and thus anger and blame from users - onto the companies. Now the question is: how to get from here to there? How to create a dialogue between business, government, and free speech proponents around the world that helps provide a road map for legal and regulatory reform in China and elsewhere? Without people getting in trouble for resistance and having their companies shut down? The answers to those questions are not yet clear but one thing IS clear to me: the human rights community needs to do a lot better job at explaining this issue to the people they are trying to help.
It's also really important for activists to understand that from most Chinese people's perspective, Chinese Internet users currently (despite all the existing censorship) have much more freedom of speech thanks to the Internet than they ever had before. So when human rights groups talk at great length about how serious the repression is, many Chinese Internet users really do think that the foreigners are making mountains out of molehills - until they or their loved ones get into trouble of course, but most people stay far away enough from politics as to avoid getting into serious trouble so they fail to see the seriousness of the problem. Again, while I still think that human rights groups are on the correct side of the issue, they need to do much more to frame it in a way that makes sense to a Chinese audience, and which isn't patronizing or seemingly hypocritical, if more Chinese people are going to better understand the work these organizations are trying to do on their behalf.
I'm afraid that the human rights groups' largely unqualified endorsement of GOFA reinforces the real perception in China and many other countries - even among people who chafe at the lack of democracy and free speech protection - that this legislation and surrounding activism is yet another way in which Westerners are trying to tell the Chinese people how to run their country. Which it certainly shouldn't be. This ought to be a global citizens' movement to prevent governments from encroaching upon our privacy and right to free speech on the Internet.