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Amnesty International targets China cooperation

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo accused of hypocrisy for touting the free flow of information and then cooperating with China.

Amnesty International upped its already-harsh criticism of Internet companies on Wednesday by accusing Google, Microsoft and Yahoo of violating their own principles in China.

In a report titled "Undermining Freedom of Expression in China," the human rights group says that the three Internet companies often talk about offering people new ways to access information. But in practice the companies have bowed to censorship demands from China's ruling Communist Party, the report says.

"This puts a lot of things together," said Jason Disterhoft, an Amnesty International spokesman. "It makes the hypocrisy explicit."

Yahoo, for instance, said in a February 2006 press release: "We are committed to providing individuals with easy access to information and opportunities to openly communicate and exchange views and opinions." But its operation has cooperated with Chinese authorities and filters its Chinese search results.

The Amnesty International report (click for PDF) includes no new information about the companies' cooperation with the Chinese government, which has been the subject of criticism from civil liberties groups and members of Congress.

In an e-mail to CNET in response to the report, Google said it "respects the fact that people and organizations, including Amnesty, oppose our decision to launch a search service in China. Google believes that will provide significant benefits to Chinese Internet users and that our engagement in China meaningfully expands access to information."

Earlier this year Google launched a filtered search engine that does not display certain Web sites disliked by Chinese officials. (Google does inform users of the delistings.)

Yahoo, however, was singled out for particular criticism in the report. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders revealed in September 2005 that information provided by Yahoo was used to convict Shi Tao, a 37-year-old journalist, of leaking "state secrets." Then, in February, the group reported that Yahoo also turned over information that led to the , a 35-year-old former civil servant from the southwestern province of Dazhou. He was convicted and sentenced to an eight-year prison sentence in 2003.

In response to the new report, Yahoo said in a statement that it has been working with human-rights organizations and government officials to craft better industry policies in nations such as China.

"We continue to employ rigorous procedural protections under applicable laws in response to government requests for information, maintaining our commitment to user privacy and compliance with the law," the statement said. "And we will actively engage in ongoing policy dialogue with governments with respect to the nature of the Internet and the free flow of information."

Microsoft said it would be unable to comment on Wednesday.

Amnesty International hopes the timing of its report will provide additional momentum to a bill that a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee approved last month. Titled the Global Online Freedom Act, it would slap restrictions on companies that do business with "Internet-restricting countries" and create a new federal bureaucracy to deal with the issue.

"The U.S. government has to get serious," said Mila Rosenthal, director of Amnesty International's business and human-rights program. "We haven't seen a lot of action in that department."