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    China Business
     Feb 13, 2007
Internet giants to tackle China's censorship
By Indrajit Basu

KOLKATA - As China once again moves to tighten regulation of the Internet, a new force is forming in the West to address challenges to free expression and privacy faced by technology and communications companies doing business internationally.

Faced with increasing criticism from global human-rights groups for bowing to Internet censorship in many countries - particularly in China - US-based Internet giants such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have finally joined forces with a diverse range of companies and organizations to define online privacy rights and

freedom of expression.

On January 18, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and UK-based Vodafone formed an alliance with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), and other companies, academics, investors, technology leaders and rights organizations to produce a set of principles guiding company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policies that threaten human rights.

Simultaneously, this new force is also working on how to advance civil liberties on the Internet in the face of laws that run contrary to international human-rights standards.

"Technology companies have played a vital role in building the economy and providing tools important for democratic reform in developing countries," said Leslie Harris, executive director of CDT. "But many governments have found ways to turn technology against their citizens - monitoring legitimate online activities and censoring democratic material. It is vital that we identify solutions that preserve the enormous democratic value provided by technological development, while at the same time protecting the human rights and civil liberties of those who stand to benefit from that expansion."

According to the new combined group, in addition to developing the principles, it will seek to advance their effectiveness by establishing a framework to implement them, hold signatories accountable and provide for learning. The process, the group said, marks a new phase in efforts that the members began last year when Google, Microsoft, Vodafone and Yahoo, with the facilitation of BSR and advice from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, initiated a series of dialogues to gain a fuller understanding of free expression and privacy as they relate to the use of technology worldwide.

Indeed, this announcement comes at a time when governments of countries such as Iran, Vietnam and particularly China are increasingly using technology such as the Internet to clamp down on freedom of speech. For instance, within a week after these companies joined forces, China's news agency, Xinhua, announced that the president of China, Hu Jintao, had called for further regulation of the Internet as the world's most populous country rapidly moves toward passing the US in number of Internet users. Xinhua said Hu made the call to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, urging it to "actively and creatively nurture a healthy online culture" that meets public demand.

The Chinese government, it appears, wants to use the Internet as a Communist Party propaganda tool, a medium for spreading "healthy information". Vowing to "purify the Internet environment" through better regulation and other measures, Hu was quoted by Xinhua as saying: "We should spread more information that is in good taste, and promote online products that can represent the grand Chinese culture."

Rights groups say China has always forced Internet and information-technology companies to collude with Beijing in censoring the Internet, particularly US firms Google, Cisco, Yahoo and others. They have come under fire numerous times in the past two years because, allegedly to ensure access to the huge Chinese market, they have collaborated with the authorities to prevent users from accessing "unwelcome" sites focusing on such issues as freedom, democracy, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square. Some were even accused of revealing the identity of authors of articles, which led to their arrest and imprisonment. The formation of the group therefore "is an important development because it shows these companies have stepped up, [and are] willing to work with human-rights groups to improve the situation',' said Harris.

Although both facilitators of this initiative, CDT and BSR, are unwilling to reveal the set of principles - expected to be formulated by the end of the year - the group is founded on, Michael Samway, vice president and deputy general counsel at Yahoo, said some of the questions the group will answer are: "Should we focus our concerns on censorship of political speech? Should companies draw the line at doing business somewhere based on the type of speech a government limits? Would it be a decision based on the quantity or the quality of limitations? And using which standards and measures? Could Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provide a starting point? And very importantly, how far can a company go in challenging local laws and orders?"

There is a fear that the group will find it difficult to agree on a set of principles. Steve Lippman of Trillium Asset Management, one of the members of the group, said that although there's "cautious optimism" that a consensus will emerge, "there is no guarantee".

Meanwhile, pressure on the US-based Internet companies to refuse to bow to censorship from various governments is mounting. Last month, for instance, US Congressman Christopher Smith, the Republican chairman of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, reintroduced proposed legislation that seeks to impose restrictions and fines on US companies operating in "Internet-restricting countries".

Reports suggest that the measure has the support of Democrats as well, and is slated to get more attention this year. But the problem is that not all US-based technology companies are willing to cooperate. Networking giant Cisco - which is building networks for Chinese communications companies - is facing criticism for not participating in the effort. However, the company insists it does not contribute in any way to censorship by governments and merely sells equipment to China, having no control over what is done with it.

In fact, some of the Internet giants even say China's efforts to crack down on the Internet are driven more by protection-seeking local rivals than the government's desire to restrict freedom of speech. At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sergey Brin, Google's president of technology, told reporters that Internet policing may be the result of lobbying by local competitors.

The members of the group are: Amnesty International, Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, Boston Common Asset Management, Business for Social Responsibility (facilitator), Calvert Group, Center for Democracy and Technology (facilitator), Committee to Protect Journalists, Domini Social Investments LLC, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Enterprise Privacy Group, F&C Asset Management, Google Inc, Human Rights First, Human Rights in China, Human Rights Watch, International Business Leaders Forum, International Council on Human Rights Policy, Microsoft, Reporters Without Borders, Trillium Asset Management, the United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary General on Business and Human Rights (observer status), the University of California-Berkeley School of Law-Boalt Hall, Vodafone, and Yahoo Inc.

Indrajit Basu is a Kolkata-based journalist.

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China renews its morality drive (Feb 2, '07)

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A quantum leap in censorship (Sep 22, '06)

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