Legislation and Code of Conduct Needed to Ensure Ethical Business Practices
August 11, 2006
Western Internet companies are complicit in actively censoring political material without telling users what’s happening and why.
Rebecca MacKinnon, consultant to Human Rights Watch

(Hong Kong) - Legislation and a strong industry code of conduct are necessary to end the complicity of Western Internet companies in political censorship in China, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. China’s system of Internet censorship and surveillance, popularly known as the “Great Firewall,” is the most advanced in the world.

In the 149-page report, “Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship,” Human Rights Watch documents how extensive corporate and private sector cooperation – including by some of the world’s major Internet companies – enables this system of censorship.

“Western Internet companies are complicit in actively censoring political material without telling users what’s happening and why,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a consultant to Human Rights Watch. “We believe that companies could act more ethically and still operate in China. It is time for Internet companies to decide whether they want to be part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Research was performed through interviews and extensive testing of search engines in China, and includes 18 screen shots to illustrate examples of censorship. The report vividly illustrates how various companies, including Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and Skype block terms they believe the Chinese government will want them to censor.

Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the decision by Yahoo! to release the identity of private users to the Chinese authorities. This assisted in the imprisonment and heavy sentences of four Chinese government critics, Shi Tao, Li Zhi, Jiang Lijun, and Wang Xiaoning. In a letter to Human Rights Watch, published in the report, Yahoo! states that it was only following local laws.

Microsoft has censored searches and blog titles to avoid sensitive political topics, and deleted or blocked whole blogs expressing peaceful political views. Google’s slogan, “Don’t Be Evil,” was called into question by users after it launched a censored search engine, www.google.cn, in response to Chinese government pressure. Skype’s Chinese software is configured to censor sensitive words in text chats without informing the user, which the company has justified as consistent with local best practices and Chinese law.

Human Rights Watch said it was ironic that companies whose existence depends on freedom of information and expression have taken on the role of censor, even in cases where the Chinese government makes no specific demands for them to do so. While companies say they censor under pressure or are only following local regulations, there has been little effort to resist demands or pressures from the Chinese government to censor. Human Rights Watch urged the companies to use all legal means to resist demands for censorship of searches, blogs, and web addresses. Companies should only comply with such demands if they are made via legally binding procedures that can be documented and after the company has exhausted all reasonable legal means to resist them.

Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google all argue that China’s Internet users have greater access to information because the companies operate in China, despite their compromises. “Race to the Bottom” demonstrates that within a difficult environment, different companies have been making different choices about where they draw the ethical line, with widely varying results. Tests showed that Chinese Internet users can access greater amounts of information using the censored www.google.cn and MSN Chinese search engines than they can using providers based in China. But the tests showed that Yahoo! China’s level and method of search censorship is as bad and in some cases worse than the heavily censored Baidu, China’s most popular homegrown search engine. The tests also showed that Google is the most transparent in informing users about censorship.

“Race to the Bottom” includes many examples of blogs by Chinese users outraged by the decisions of these companies.

“Yahoo!’s role in the Shi Tao case and Google’s decision to turn censor in order to curry favor with the Chinese government show the extent of corporate capitulation to China,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “But Internet companies are learning they can’t become partners in political censorship without provoking outrage and a loss of trust by users, including those in China.”

Human Rights Watch called the United States, the European Union and other jurisdictions to pass legislation prohibiting companies from storing personal user data on servers in China. The aim of this legislation should not be to prevent U.S. or other international companies from operating in China. Rather, the goal should be for companies in the business of disseminating information and ideas to adhere to these goals in China, not to participate in or facilitate censorship or the arrest of individuals involved in peaceful expression, and to set a strong example of ethical corporate behavior.

“Laws are needed to end this race to the bottom and establish a level playing field so that the Chinese government can’t pick off companies one by one,” said Adams. “Otherwise the standard set will be that of the company trying the hardest to please the Chinese government.”

Human Rights Watch believes the following principles should be included in legislation on corporate responsibility to uphold human rights:

  • No user data should be stored in jurisdictions where there is a strong record of punishing individuals for exercising basic rights such as freedom of expression;
  • Companies should not take on the role of active censors;
  • Companies should be prohibited from complying with oral, undocumented requests from the authorities for censorship of political speech;
  • Companies should make public on their websites when a government has forced them to censor political speech;
  • When a search returns no results, or only censored results, companies should be required to clearly inform users; and
  • Legislation should be adopted by all countries and should apply to companies operating in all countries.

    “The aim of effective legislation and corporate codes of conduct should be to help companies all over the world best serve the interests and rights of their users and customers, and to avoid being used by governments as tools for political manipulation – and in some cases abuse of people’s fundamental human rights,” said MacKinnon.