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Tech Industry

Social funds warn Web firms on human rights

Investment group targets technology that undermines human rights by aiding surveillance and censorship.

SAN FRANCISCO--A group of social investment funds from Western countries called on Monday for Internet companies to refrain from supporting repressive human rights practices in China and other nations.

In a letter by 25 investment funds based in the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Australia that manage a total of $21 billion in investments, fund managers warned companies ranging from Yahoo to Cisco of risks in "collaborating to suppress freedom of opinion and expression."

The investor group said it was responding to a recent controversy over the role allegedly played by Yahoo's Hong Kong unit in providing evidence that human rights campaigners say led to the imprisonment of a dissident Chinese journalist.

In September Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders said that Yahoo helped Chinese authorities to link journalist Shi Tao to a U.S.-based Web site, leading him to receive a 10-year prison sentence for revealing state secrets in April.

"We take this issue very seriously," Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako said in a statement on Monday.

"While foreign-based companies must adhere to local laws in all the countries where they operate, we understand that there are unique and inherent challenges to doing business in China."

Signatories to the letter included Domini, Calvert Group, Walden Asset Management, various U.S. Catholic social investment funds, Ethical Funds of Canada, Fondation Ethos in Switzerland and Conscious Investors of Australia.

"This is essentially a lockdown on freedom of expression," Amy Domini, founder and chief executive of Domini Social Investments LLC of New York and a leading U.S. social investment campaigner, said in a phone interview.

Domini said Internet access should be just as as private mail or conversations in cafes. "The Internet is now the way people chat with each other," she said.

Other companies mentioned at a joint news conference in New York held by investment groups and Reporters Without Borders included Google and Microsoft. No one from Google or Microsoft was immediately available to comment.

The letter called on Internet businesses "to make information public that will allow investors to assess how each firm is acting to ensure that its products and services are not being used to commit human rights violations."

The group said it also plans to target companies that distribute products or services that enable Internet censorship, surveillance or identification of dissidents.

Leading global makers of communications network gear such as Cisco and Nortel have long been accused of having a role in supplying technologies that allow the Chinese government to maintain tight censorship controls over the domestic Internet.

Spokeswoman Penelope Bruce said in a statement that Cisco did not participate in censorship by governments in any way.

"Cisco has not specially designed or marketed products for any government, or any regional market, to censor Internet content from citizens," Bruce said.

"Cisco sells identical products worldwide. The products Cisco sells in countries such as the U.S., China, India, Pakistan and France are the same products that it sells in other countries."

Boston Common Asset Management has put forward a proposal at Cisco's annual shareholder meeting, to be held Nov. 15, calling on the company to strengthen its corporate human rights policies. Cisco management opposes the resolution.

Reporters Without Borders said the scope of the campaign for free Internet expression extended beyond China to include companies such as Fortinet, which critics say has sold filters to restrict the Internet to Burma's military government, and Secure Computing, whose filtering technology is alleged to be used to restrict the Web in Tunisia. Spokesmen for the two companies were not immediately available to comment.