A cyber blind spot on human rights

If the Internet industry fails to reform itself, it may be time for Congress to step in, says Julien Pain of Reporters Without Borders.

3 min read
Recent revelations that Yahoo helped the Chinese police and judicial authorities identify and convict a journalist who criticized human rights violations in China are shocking. But the case turned the spotlight on a situation we have condemned for years. Yahoo's is just the most striking example of Internet companies that help the world's most repressive regimes, especially China, carry out online censorship and surveillance. Consider the following:

•  Microsoft censors the Chinese version of its blog tool, MSN Spaces, using a blacklist provided by authorities in Beijing. You cannot enter the terms "democracy" or even "capitalism" in the Chinese version of MSN Spaces as the system automatically rejects these words.

But what is the best way to get concrete results? We think it is time to involve U.S. congressmen.

•  Cisco Systems built the entire infrastructure of the Chinese Internet and allegedly supplied the Chinese security services with equipment that enables them to monitor Internet users.

•  Finally Google, which has always refused to censor its search engine, nonetheless agreed last year to eliminate all "subversive" news sources from Google News China.

When questioned about their unethical behavior, all these corporations respond as one: "We are just complying with local laws." That is a bit facile. What would happen if Yahoo itself were asked to track down cyberdissidents--those who write about democracy and express support for the United States on the Internet--and report them to the authorities? Would it comply with such requests on the grounds that they were "legal?"

Freedom of expression, recognized by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is enshrined in black and white in the Chinese constitution. It is a principle that should be respected by everyone--governments, citizens and companies as well.

What can we do in response to this lack of ethics on the part of the Internet giants? Reporters Without Borders' first reaction was to write to their chief executives in an attempt to engage them in an exchange of views and a debate about the issue. We got no reply to any of our letters, so we had to look for other ways to make ourselves heard.

We tried drawing the media's attention to the problem, thinking these companies would be concerned about protecting their image and would be sensitive to this kind of pressure. Despite the hundreds of articles on this subject that have appeared in the international press, Yahoo and the others have remained silent. We then tried to alert these companies' shareholders through investment funds. On Nov. 7, we presented a joint statement in New York in which 25 mutual trusts and financial analysts managing a total of 21 billion dollars in assets undertook to monitor the activities of Internet companies operating in repressive countries.

Finally, we also alerted members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and government officials, and several of them have already called on the companies concerned to give an official accounting of their behavior.

Thanks to all this pressure, some of these companies seem at last to be opening their eyes. Yahoo's discourse, for example, has evolved slightly in recent weeks. A Yahoo representative told the Associated Press: "We understand that there are unique and inherent challenges to doing business in China." This is obviously just a small step forward, as the spokesperson at no point recognized that Yahoo ought to reconsider its strategy. But the formulation seems to indicate that Yahoo is now ready to seriously ponder the consequences of its activities in China.

But what is the best way to get concrete results? We think it is time to involve U.S. congressmen. They could, for example, call on corporations such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to define a joint position on the requests they receive from repressive governments, a code of conduct that each of them would undertake and respect. These rules could include a ban on any censorship by them of such terms as "democracy" and "human rights."

If these companies refuse to regulate themselves within a reasonable deadline, it might then be necessary for the Senate or House of Representatives to draft legislation. The threat, at least, should be brandished right away.