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What does the current controversy say about the large Internet companies with whom we share so much personal information?
An etiquette girl is reflected on a big screen at the Google's 2008 Xian winter marketing forum on November 20, 2008 in Xian, China. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images.)
NEW YORK – At center stage: Google, China and Hillary Clinton in a loud dispute over Internet freedom, privacy and sovereignty.
Back stage: Efforts to ensure that democratic governments defend freedom of expression and companies respect human rights.
Out of sight: Human rights advocates, journalists and dissidents arrested for their words on the Web or in email.
The issue is one of human rights and good business at home as well as abroad, advocacy groups and officials say. If technology companies profit while cooperating in censorship or tolerating invasion of privacy elsewhere, can anyone trust the Internet? If democratic governments do nothing to stop such human rights violations, what guarantees freedom and privacy anywhere?
Champions of Internet freedom don’t presume that denouncing violations will persuade authoritarian regimes to change. On the contrary, they have launched a variety of initiatives they hope will fight off censorship, shield privacy and keep information flowing freely on the Web.
The most recent salvo was Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s January 2010 policy speech calling Internet freedom inseparable from human rights. Clinton pledged to reinvigorate the State Department’s Global Internet Freedom Task Force and promised a meeting of U.S. officials and companies. The department hopes to schedule the meeting by early March.
The private sector has been working on the issue since 2008, under the Global Network Initiative, which brings together human rights groups, scholars, investors and major technology companies – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo – to craft corporate social responsibility guidelines and independent assessments of company compliance.
Amnesty International is pushing for more than voluntary standards; it wants governments to regulate corporate behavior abroad, which the U.S. and European Union already do regarding bribery, for example.
The European Parliament proposed a Global Online Freedom Act with export controls, trade sanctions and corporate standards. The European Commission declined to go that far. Instead, the E.U. Telecoms Framework Directive of November requires that communications policies “respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons.”
Duy Linh Tu of Columbia University’s journalism school doubts voluntary standards and statements of principle will suffice. He sees hope from another quarter: demand by China’s “netizens” for access. Chinese official statistics list 384 million Internet users.
Building freedom or kowtowing to Chinese markets
When Internet companies opened shop in China, human rights groups warned they would be forced to censor. Google, which launched there in 2006, and others said their presence would increase access to information. The subject was often treated as a business matter and negotiated privately, until Google broached it in a company blog on Jan. 12.
Google threatened to pull out of China over increasing censorship and “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China.” Google said 20 companies had been targeted and that, separately, “third parties” had “routinely accessed” the e-mail accounts of human rights advocates at home and abroad.
Clinton followed with a 40-minute speech establishing Internet freedom as an Obama administration priority and central to freedom of expression, association and religion.
“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does,” Clinton said. Technology is “not an unmitigated blessing,” she added; it can be used to power not only freedom movements but also terrorist conspiracies and political oppression. “And as the birthplace for many of these technologies, including the Internet itself, we have a responsibility to see them used for good.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, said the United States “insinuated China restricts Internet freedom” while China’s Internet is “open and managed in accordance with law,” the official news agency, Xinhua, reported. Xinhua wrote that “Chinese people enjoyed adequate freedom of speech.” Ma warned that U.S. claims would harm the countries’ relations. U.S.-China verbal clashes have since spread to issues including Taiwan and Tibet.
China signed, in 1998, the international treaty that guarantees everyone’s right to freedom of expression “through any … media of his choice” and allows restrictions only to protect the rights of others, national security and public order.
Human Rights Watch says the Chinese government “devotes massive financial and human resources to censor the Internet and to hunt down and punish netizens who hold views which the ruling Chinese Communist Party disagrees with.”
Human rights groups say China is not the only concern; Cuba, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Myanmar, North Korea and others block Web sites, arrest journalists and spy on Internet and email users. Activists also criticize the West over efforts to outlaw hate speech, impose broad surveillance in the name of fighting terrorism or hold companies liable for child pornography on the Web. Authoritarian governments may see such acts as a license to censor their own critics.
On Feb. 22, an Italian court convicted three Google executives over a video showing the beating of an autistic person that was quickly removed from the Web.
The U.S. steps in
Jared Cohen of the State Department’s policy planning staff says Clinton’s speech constitutes “a major paradigm shift.” The task force, formed by but dormant under the Bush administration, will implement the Internet freedom agenda by engaging all U.S. government agencies, private companies and other stakeholders. Changes include sponsoring innovation competitions, supplying technology that circumvents censorship to those who need it and proposing a resolution on Internet freedom in the United Nations Human Rights Council, he says. With Europe, the U.S. is shifting emphasis from slight differences to shared responsibility for free expression.
“Our values extend to cyberspace,” Cohen says, adding that Clinton’s acknowledgement of U.S. aid to people silenced by oppression in 40 countries was a first. The government has allocated $20 million over the past two years to that work.
Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN Beijing bureau chief, says China’s policies have become “more and more poisonous” over the past year. China used to deny it censored but now says it has a sovereign right to apply its laws, an argument that heartens other restrictive governments, she adds.
At Amnesty International, Widney Brown says China’s people need information official media omit regarding epidemics and tainted milk. She adds that China’s government knows one of its biggest challenges is corruption at local levels, a problem it can’t tackle without Internet users who expose such problems as the shoddy construction that caused schools to collapse in the 2008 earthquake, killing thousands of children.
At stake, in addition to free speech, privacy and the safety of dissidents, is the reputation of an industry that portrays itself as clean and progressive but that must maintain public trust in order to prosper.
Will voluntary standards work?
In the Global Network Initiative, Google and Microsoft work with Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, Trillium Asset Management, Harvard Law School and others. Both companies declined repeated requests for comment.
On the Microsoft Web site, chief executive Steve Ballmer says “we are proud to be co-founders” of GNI and committed to “advancing Internet freedom.” Microsoft founder Bill Gates told ABC TV that companies have to operate under national laws but that China’s censorship is “very limited” and easy to circumvent.
GNI has yet to hire its first chief executive, but member organizations readily talk about the work. Meg Roggensack, a Human Rights First advisor, says companies are under pressure because China holds them liable for what their customers post on the Web. No company wants to lose out to competitors by standing alone against censorship, she says. Through GNI, they work collectively on guidelines that require member companies to use human rights impact assessments and to undergo independent assessment.
Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch says that “in two to three years, the world should know that, if a company says it’s a GNI company, it means something — a greater degree of protection for human rights.”
At Committee to Protect Journalists, Robert Mahoney says savvy Chinese know how to dodge the “golden shield” of censorship, also dubbed the “great firewall,” but most don’t.
“We’re against any government anywhere curtailing what we regard as free speech and the ability to practice journalism,” he says. In 2009, China jailed 24 journalists, Iran, 23, and Cuba, 22, according to CPJ.
“It’s crucial that we get this right, because journalism is moving online,” Mahoney adds.
Brown says her organization, Amnesty, feels it can be more effective outside GNI prodding governments to regulate corporate behavior. Rights violations in electronic media are easy to hide compared with chemical spills by mining companies. Brown says governments must require companies to report to a body of experts on their compliance with human rights laws and create complaints systems.
Ganesan says the movement “needs champions” at government level. So far, he says, the E.U. directive lacks enforcement mechanisms and the United Nations has done little. He says governments can speak out about online freedom, ensure that corporations act responsibly and promote technologies that circumvent censorship.
U.N. sources confirmed that the organization works on other business and human rights issues but not on Internet freedom. Last year, E.U. Commissioner Viviane Reding said she did not support “hard law” that would pull European companies out of censored markets, giving rivals the advantage.
MacKinnon, the former CNN journalist and a GNI member, says protecting free speech takes governments, companies, advocacy groups, and one more: the public. Web users should monitor what companies do with their data, work only with companies that respect human rights, call on legislators to protect free speech and assist people in countries that censor, she says.
“Be a noisy consumer,” MacKinnon advises. “We need more citizen movement around this issue, just like the environment.”