UPDATE 5:15 pm 31 January 2006
Washington (DC) – A meeting of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, in which representatives of the US State Dept., Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, among others, are due to appear, will apparently not be joined by Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, or Cisco Systems, according to a spokesperson for the meeting’s chairperson.
Ryan Keating, press spokesperson for Cong. Tim Ryan (Democrat – Ohio), told TG Daily this afternoon that the four companies received invitations to appear for this meeting had received their invitations at the beginning of the year. Google, Cisco, and Microsoft declined their invitations; Yahoo has yet to respond. “From our point of view, it’s a missed opportunity for these companies,” Ryan told us. The four companies would have constituted the entire afternoon panel session, whose time is now likely to be consumed by their critics.
The issue on the table during tomorrow’s meeting, Keating told us, was whether American companies are sacrificing their commitments to human rights, in the name of doing business in China. “China has one of the most sophisticated content-filtering Internet regimes in the world,” reads the docket listing posted on the Caucus’ Web site. “The Chinese government employs sophisticated methods to limit content online, including a combination of legal regulation, surveillance, and punishment to promote self-censorship, as well as technical controls.”
One example recently brought to the public spotlight involves Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who received a 10-year prison sentence for sending an e-mail to a source outside the .cn top-level domain. The e-mail reportedly contained an attached memo from a Chinese Communist Party source, urging Chinese reporters not to make mention of the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In a court transcript prior to Shi’s sentencing, according to several sources, Yahoo was thanked for having supplied the Chinese government with information concerning Shi’s e-mail communications.
A statement on Amnesty International’s Web site reads in part, “Imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression, a right entrenched in international law and the Chinese Constitution, Shi Tao is considered a Prisoner of Conscience.” Amnesty’s T. Kumar is expected to appear before the Caucus tomorrow.
More recently, the matter of Google’s new .cn search engine has come to light, where the company itself has admitted filtering its own results for Chinese users, as part of an agreement between the company and the Chinese government. A recent test of Google’s filters, conducted by SearchEngineWatch.com, clearly shows the filter at work, filtering out images returned during a Google Images query of “Tiananmen” to exclude disturbing pictures of protests, riots, and other such spurious displays of democracy. However, mis-spelling “Tiananmen” in the query line fails to trigger the filter, so the disturbing results are revealed.
The closest thing to a defense of Google’s actions in opening up its filtered Chinese service is a statement by the company’s senior policy counsel, Andrew McLaughlin, who in fact lamented the company’s actions by way of defending them. “Launching a Google domain that restricts information in any way isn’t a step we took lightly,” McLaughlin wrote. “For several years, we’ve debated whether entering the Chinese market at this point in history could be consistent with our mission and values.”
The company wrestled with the idea of presenting limited service to the Chinese people, or no service whatsoever, which Google interpreted as a 100% filter rather than a partial one. “Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population, however, does so far more severely,” McLaughlin stated. In a clear shot across the bow toward Yahoo, however, he added that his company will continue to respect the privacy of those who use it to communicate with others.
“These are capitulations to a repressive Chinese regime,” Ryan Keating, Cong. Ryan’s spokesperson, told us today, “and we’d like to see it stop…These companies have said, when they’re doing business in China, they’re under the control of the Chinese government.” Cong. Ryan, he said, understands the willingness for American companies to help this country build what he called “the Chinese Internet.” But they should remember, he argued, that US taxpayers funded the creation of the global Internet, which arose out of a project of the US Dept. of Defense, Keating reminded us. “US citizens have a right to expect US companies to abide by US rules,” he remarked.
Microsoft accused of pulling the plug; Cisco of making the plug
Last Friday, during a meeting of the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked whether his company’s China policy was in sync with his company’s oft-repeated credo, “Don’t be evil.” An International Herald Tribune reporter on the scene recorded Schmidt’s response as, “We even made an ‘evil scale,’ and decided it was more evil not to go in than to go in.” Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, also in attendance, reportedly responded by uttering into his microphone, “That’s, do less evil.” This set Schmidt off, who responded in turn, “I don’t want to get caught up in semantics.”
Microsoft is also currently taking part in a European Government Leaders Forum, sponsored by the company, but not in the Human Rights Caucus. In a statement released late this afternoon, a Microsoft spokesperson told TG Daily, “We informed the Human Rights caucus that we would not be able to provide them with an expert witness this Wednesday. But this is an important issue for the industry and for citizens internationally. We do plan to continue to engage in discussions with government leaders on issues of great importance, and we are planning to participate in upcoming congressional hearings on this topic on the 15th.”
Microsoft’s statement could be interpreted to mean it’s perfectly willing to speak with Congress on the issue of doing business with China, but not necessarily in the same venue with some of its staunchest critics.
Cisco Systems was accused last year of selling networking equipment to the Chinese government, reportedly for the purposes of enabling it to censor its own citizens’ Internet access. Cisco has vehemently denied that allegation. In a statement last August, the company said, “Cisco Systems does not participate in the censorship of information by governments.” The statement added, however, “Cisco does sell networking equipment to law enforcement agencies around the world, including in China, in compliance with U.S. Department of Commerce regulations. Our products offer benefits through the networking of computing devices that aid in the effectiveness and timeliness of law enforcement.”
In a statement posted last Friday to Cisco’s corporate blog, spokesman John Earnhardt sided with Google on that company’s China policy. “Agree or disagree with China’s censorship policies,” wrote Earnhardt, “some internet in China is definitely better than no internet. They are a sovereign nation and while I may disagree with them keeping information from their citizens, that is their right under their own laws. We cannot place our U.S. or French or German or British sensibilities or values on them.”
For Cong. Ryan’s part, his spokesman told us, he would like to see American companies band together in support of globally-accepted human rights principles, including freedom of speech and open communication. They could band together, he argued, if they’re unwilling to take such a stand on their own accord. Wal-Mart, he agreed, has been monumentally successful in single-handedly changing the way business is done in China – and the way China is viewed by the US. Why then, he argued, would these four major American corporations want to take a back seat to Wal-Mart?
It’s worth noting, however, that since tomorrow’s Caucus meeting focuses on Internet policy, Wal-Mart was not invited.
“Whether succumbing to demands from Chinese officials or anticipating government concerns,” Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan told the same World Economic Forum last week, “companies that impose restrictions that infringe on human rights are being extremely short-sighted. The agreements the industry enters into with the Chinese government, whether tacit or written, go against the IT industry’s claim that it promotes the right to freedom of information of all people, at all times, everywhere.”