Amnesty's China hit-list

Becky Hogge
20 July 2006

Could people power stop Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! from doing business with China's repressive regime? That's certainly what Amnesty International hoped yesterday when they launched a new campaign urging web users to petition the three internet giants to reveal exactly what terms are forbidden from view inside China's great firewall. The campaign is accompanied by a new report, Undermining Freedom of Expression in China, the role of Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google, which closes with some salient advice. Listing the footwear and apparel businesses, the cocoa industry, the pharmaceutical sector and others that have fallen prey to a bad rep with consumers, Amnesty comforts its targets by noting:

"Companies hit by a reputational crisis that they are unprepared for often go through a phase of denial and defensiveness…[after which]…many of the companies that have found themselves exposed on these issues, and that have become a target of public pressure as a result, have subsequently begun to address the problem."

But will Amnesty's newest target sector behave the same as the corporates they and others have taken on in the past? Two aspects of the situation suggest caution.

For one, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google are more ubiquitous in their own sphere than Nike, Gap and Shell. Although Amnesty fall short of demanding a boycott of the online gang of three, if they did, the majority of users would not know where to turn. Google dominates the search engine market, with many internet users even relying on Google as a quick way to find sites whose location they already know. Further, to the dismay of those who advocate the free / open source operating system Linux (and, one suspects, the silent pleasure of the elite in the "cult of Mac") the Microsoft operating system has overwhelming market share of desktop computers. Meanwhile, Yahoo!'s services remain the most popular destination on the web. We cannot, for the most part, turn on and tune in to the internet without patronising at least one of the companies targeted by Amnesty.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's Technology Director and Technology Commissioning Editor.

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)

"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)

"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)

"What moves a movement?"
(July 2006)

Secondly, as the gang's protests of "better in than out" reveal, the world's attitude to China's authoritarian regime differs markedly to that of say, apartheid South Africa in the past. The democratic world's approach to China over the past ten years has been one of economic engagement. Nevermind an appalling human rights record and a rate of growth that puts the future of the climate in further jeopardy; send in the global businesses, goes the reasoning, and the economic freedoms they bring will be a democratising force. No wonder consumers might be confused over whether the gang of three have acted irresponsibly. Indeed, the freedom of speech debate might be seen as a proxy for a discussion on the success of this policy overall.

None of which is to say that the Amnesty report is not absolutely correct in its assertion that the situation needs urgent and appropriate action. The report from the international human rights body adds much-needed momentum to the tide of an argument that has been swelling ever since Google went into China with google.cn at the beginning of this year.

The report sets out the responsibilities of corporations like Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google in the terms of the second principle of the UN Global Compact, a statement on human rights to which over 2,000 companies and institutions have signed up: that business entities should make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses. Although the report accepts that the concept of complicity is only recently approaching definition, they nonetheless make a convincing case that Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google have acted against this principle.

Arguments that have been used to defend decisions in China are systematically deconstructed and destroyed, and much of the rest of the report consists of a well-researched and jarring exposé of each of the three companies' purported values – of openness, freedom, putting the user first – set against their recent practices. As Amnesty International rightly point out, a company's values are not just an exercise in public relations, but core to any exercise in business. Values attract investors, talent, customers.

The report's recommendations are exhaustive, demanding that internet companies operating in China be transparent not only about their practices, but also about company policy, decision-making processes and deals brokered by the company with the Chinese administration. Further, the report calls on companies to use their position to advocate for freedom of expression, lobby the Chinese government and appeal to the Chinese judicial system to honour international human rights norms (and China's own constitution, article 35 of which provides for freedom of speech). Finally, the report recommends that Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google participate in a "multi-stakeholder process to develop a set of guidelines relating to the internet and human rights issues", and ensure these guidelines have teeth.

What could such a process deliver? A self-regulatory policy, or something more? The Congressional hearings in February, along with Congressman Chris Cox's Global Internet Freedom Bill, could be seen to demonstrate a will, on behalf of the US government at least, to legislate. This could be good news for Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and others like them; if legislation were able to resolve the conflict between local laws which compel them to compromise on human rights, and the expectations of their global audience.

Such legislation could go further in confirming the status of the internet as a force for democratic good. Currently the law is oblique on this point, leaving those in the business of the internet exposed to civil suits from corporate interests that, some argue, run counter to the realisation of the internet's obvious opportunity to allow for the free flow of information across the globalised world. The threat of costly civil action can leave companies risk averse, with a resultant chilling effect on innovation. Legislation confirming the right of online service providers to promote the free spread of information could take such cases out of the corporate sphere and into the larger, global arena, where ideas of justice and freedom play to a far more appreciative audience.

Obviously, a law with this much power would need to be drafted with the utmost care for checks and balances. One suspects that even then, business, being business, would welcome legislation only tentatively.

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