The Great Firewall of China--Made in America
Internet giants Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have come under fire today from Amnesty International for actively complying with the authoritarian government of China's attempts to censor the internet in that country.
These companies came in for withering criticism as part of Amnesty's campaign to raise awareness of political censorship throughout the world by highlighting its impact in China where internet suppression is more widespread and effective largely because American tech companies are "particularly willing to cooperate with the Chinese government," the group said in a statement.
"The internet can be a great tool for the promotion of human rights -- activists can tell the world about abuses in their country at the click of a mouse. People have unprecedented access to information from the widest range of sources," the statement continued. "But the internet's potential for change is being undermined -- by governments unwilling to tolerate this free media outlet, and by companies willing to help them repress free speech."
From the overview:
Ever since the introduction of the Internet in China in 1994 and particularly since its commercialization in 1995, the Chinese government has sought
to control its content and to censor information it deemed detrimental or sensitive. With over 111 million Internet users,27 experts consider that China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world.28 The implications of this distorted on-line information environment for China's users are profound and disturbing. Despite China's rapidly expanding economy the political climate still favors repression of dissent and restrictions over fundamental freedoms. Amnesty International is greatly concerned by the actions taken by the Chinese authorities to limit the dissemination of information and repress those individuals and groups who choose to peacefully exercise their legitimate right to express dissent.
The sophisticated technology that allows the government to block and filter Internet content is primarily designed by foreign companies. Words and phrases that have been targeted include "human rights", "democracy" and "freedom". This pervasive system of filtering "undesirable" information is so effective partly because the process lacks transparency. There is no means by which Chinese citizens may appeal to have a site unblocked and it is not clear what words or phrases are banned and how the decision
is made to prohibit certain topics. In September 2005, the government enacted the "Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services", which required all individuals and organizations that publish news to be officially sanctioned. The only guidance offered by the government regarding the reasons behind this decision was that it was in the interests of "serving socialism", "upholding the interest of the State" and "correctly guiding public opinion".
There are reportedly thousands of Internet police monitoring cyberspace in China. Amnesty International expressed its concerns before the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus in February 2006.30 Those concerns included the fact that individuals have been imprisoned for expressing opinions and publishing information that the government deems "subversive" under laws that also provide for the death penalty. China currently has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world. Amnesty International has documented at least 54 Chinese Internet users it believes are presently imprisoned for such acts as signing petitions, calling for an end to corruption, disseminating information about SARS and planning to establish pro-democracy groups. [...]
Companies such as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft present themselves as responsible, customer-focused organizations. They claim a commitment to meeting or exceeding user expectations. Google even claims to have temporarily withheld certain products from the Chinese market because they could not ensure that user expectations would be met. According to these companies, "user expectations" drive decision making. It would therefore be logical to assume that should these companies become aware that users are interested in their right to freedom of expression and communication, then they would act to respect these rights.
The growing number of individuals who have developed ways to circumvent the filtering process indicates that users in China are not satisfied with filtered information. Individual users are developing code words to express their ideas without triggering the filtering mechanism. Another example is the "Adopt a Blog" campaign, which was developed as a result of China's restrictions on blogging services. This program links bloggers in China with those in other countries which will allow the content to be stored in servers outside China's jurisdiction. Anonymizer, an identity protection company, has also developed anti-censorship software [there are many other ways as well] that will enable Chinese users to access the Internet censorship-free without the fear of repression or persecution. These examples provide some indication about the "expectations" of China's 111 million Internet users that they can exercise their right to freedom of expression and information without fear or hindrance.
Yahoo's role in censorship:
In 2002 Yahoo! voluntarily signed the "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry". Among other things, the Pledge requires Yahoo! to "refrain from producing, posting or disseminating harmful information that may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability, contravene laws and regulations and spread superstition and obscenity". Yahoo! was under no legal obligation to sign this pledge. By taking this step, the company has aligned itself with the Chinese government's approach to suppressing dissent, damaging its own credibility in the process.
Yahoo!'s claim that the pledge does not impose a greater obligation than already exists in local law is a contentious one. By signing this pledge Yahoo! is agreeing with and expressing its support for some of the requirements of the Chinese government that are inconsistent with international human rights and freedom of expression.
Since signing the pledge, Yahoo! has continued to censor search results via the Chinese version of its search engine.
Even more disturbing, Yahoo! has also admitted to providing the Chinese authorities with information that led to the eventual arrest and imprisonment of at least two journalists, Li Zhi and Shi Tao, considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience. Both men received substantial prison sentences for activity which included disseminating information relating to the government response to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The case of Shi Tao, jailed for 10 years in April 2005 for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression – a right entrenched in international law and the Chinese Constitution – has provoked widespread international condemnation. The incarceration of Li Zhi in 2003 was highlighted in the 2004 Amnesty International report, Controls tighten as Internet activism grows, but Yahoo!'s role has only recently come to light.
Yahoo! accepts that the Shi Tao case "raises profound and troubling questions about basic human rights", but the company distances itself from responsibility.
Microsoft's Chief Executive Officer Bill Gates has been actively involved in the censorship debate. When speaking about a new US law restricting
access to information on the Internet in the interest of curbing children's exposure to pornography on the Internet, he said:
Microsoft and others in industry and non-profit organizations were deeply involved in trying to block language that would put chilling restrictions on the use of the Internet for the free publication of information. The language, ostensibly aimed at keeping pornography out of the hands of children, goes much too far in restricting freedom of expression…. Let's not undermine the world wide trend toward free expression by setting a bad example when it comes to free speech on a computer network.
This statement implies that Microsoft believes in a consistent set of principles that apply globally. This is reinforced by Gates' suggestion that "…if you have access to a PC and the Internet, you can tap into almost all the information that is publicly available worldwide." While this might come close to being true in some countries, it is not the case that people in China can access almost all the information available worldwide. Gates' vision presupposes freedom of information and the absence of political censorship.
Microsoft has admitted that it responds to directions from the Chinese government by restricting users of MSN Spaces from using certain terms in their account name, space name, space sub-title or in photo captions [...] At the same time the company asserts that MSN Spaces does not filter blog content in any way. Amnesty International considers this claim to be at odds with the facts. [...]
Microsoft in its statements has tried to blur the distinction between "blocking" users from carrying out searches and "filtering" the results of searches. This obscures the fact that Microsoft's China-based search engine (MSN China) filters the results of searches for politically sensitive terms. What this means, for example, is that of the total potential sites that could be retrieved in doing a search on, say, "Tiananmen Square", a certain number of these will be removed by the search engine itself. In conducting
a search for a politically sensitive term using "beta.search.msn.com.cn", a page comes up that states in Chinese: "Certain content was removed from the results of this search". Searches undertaken in June 2006 produced this message for terms including "Falun Gong", "Tibet independence" and "June 4" (date of Tiananmen Square massacre). Of the results that are given for such terms, there is a predominance of official sites and others sanctioned by the government. This amounts to censorship.
In the absence of full disclosure of the terms that Microsoft restricts, and information on whether Chinese language terms are more likely to be censored than other terms, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of the filtering that Microsoft undertakes.
Chinese journalist and blogger Zhao Jing (also known as Michael Anti) used MSN Spaces online to run his own blog. Zhao, who is an active critic of censorship in China, eventually had his blog shut down by Microsoft on 30 December 2005 following a request from Chinese authorities. The blog, which is hosted on servers located in the United States, was removed and was therefore censored not only in China but globally. As a result of immediate criticism, Microsoft claims to have developed a set of standards that it would adhere to in the future. Microsoft claims that it will only remove blogs when it receives formal legal notice from the Chinese government and that access would be denied to users only in China.
On 19 July 2001 a group of Google employees met to discuss the founders" vision and to develop a motto to guide the company. It was in this meeting that the phrase "Don't be evil" came into being. This motto has been the cornerstone of the company's values. "Don't be evil" is a definitive statement which provides little room for ambiguity. The founders clearly hold themselves to be morally aware. Many have questioned whether Google could in fact adhere to such a high standard. [...]
Google's CEO [Eric Shmidt] has emphasized the empowering role of the Internet:
"The democratization of information has empowered us all as individuals. We no longer have to take what business, the media or indeed politicians say at face value. Where once people waited to be told what the news was, they can now decide what news matters to them."
The view that people should be able to decide what news matters to them assumes that they have free access to information. Similarly, the assumption that the Internet enables people to be more critical of the words of politicians presupposes the right to disseminate such views. If a government is able to censor material that it wants to hide from people, then it becomes more difficult for the Internet to play this role. [...]
Despite the "Don't be evil" motto and assertions that Google is a company that holds strongly to steadfast and unwavering principles, the company announced in January 2006 the launch of Google.cn – a self-censoring Chinese search engine. This is an alternative to Google's existing search engine based outside China (Google.com). The non-censored one continues to be available to all Chinese Internet users, but searches need to pass through China's "firewall", which censors a great deal and slows
down the search process.
Google has stated that it is not happy with the decision to introduce a censored version of its international search engine. According to Google representative Elliot Schrage "The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship – something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company." Andrew McLaughlin, Senior Policy Counsel for Google, also states "Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission."
In mitigation, the company emphasizes that it has made some concessions to protect the Chinese people. It has, for example, offered to inform users
when information is being censored and has decided not to launch gmail or other services that hold personal and confidential information until the company feels confident that it can protect users' expectations in terms of privacy and security of confidential information. Google states that it would only add these new services "if circumstances permit" and it "will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions…".
While it is a positive step for Google to indicate to users that a search has been censored, there are further steps that should be taken, such as making public the list of censored words and phrases. This is something that the Internet companies could achieve by collaborating with each other to exert pressure on the Chinese government to make the list public. [...]
Google has made concessions to its critics by attempting to rationalize and mitigate its behavior, including the offer to withdraw from China should the situation require. However, by conceding to the Chinese government's censorship policy, Google undermines the principles it asserts are paramount to its business.