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I. Summary

In recent years, China has made enormous strides in economic development and modernization, particularly in urban areas. It now attracts more foreign investment than any other country in the world as international companies are increasingly attracted to a huge potential market and a source of cheap labor.

While some suggest that economic development will inexorably lead to improvements in human rights and the rule of law, in the past few years the rights situation has deteriorated. The rule of law continues to seriously lag behind economic expansion. The judiciary, a pillar of a rights-respecting society, remains poorly trained and under the political control of the Chinese Communist Party. Access to justice remains severely limited for citizens with grievances, particularly the poor. The Party retains its monopoly on political power and shows no signs of allowing political pluralism or challenges to its authority. Torture continues to be rampant, China continues to lead the world in the number of judicially authorized executions, and land grabs by the powerful from the poor have become a national problem. The list of critical human rights problems can go on and on. As a result, there is enormous social unrest, as evidenced by tens of thousands of street protests annually.

Since President Hu Jintao came to power in 2003, the trend towards greater freedom of expression––a core right upon which the attainment of many other rights depends––has been reversed. Many critical (and popular) media outlets that have exposed corruption or criticized government policies have been closed. Large numbers of journalists have been jailed.

One of the most distressing trends has been a steady crackdown on the Internet. While in the past decade the Internet has ushered in an era of unprecedented access to information and open discussion, debate, and dissent, since President Hu took office the authorities have taken a series of harsh steps to control and suppress political and religious speech on the Internet, including the jailing of Internet critics and bloggers for peaceful political expression.

In fact, China’s system of Internet censorship and surveillance is the most advanced in the world. While tens of thousands of people are employed by the Chinese government and security organs to implement a system of political censorship, this system is also aided by extensive corporate and private sector cooperation—including by some of the world’s major international technology and Internet companies. In China, the active role of censor has been extended from government offices into private companies. Some companies not only respond to instructions and pressures from Chinese authorities to censor their materials, they actively engage in self-censorship by using their technology to predict and then censor the material they believe the Chinese government wants them to censor.

On February 15, 2006, four U.S.-based companies, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and Cisco, were brought before a U.S. congressional hearing to explain their operations in China. The following day, Representative Chris Smith introduced the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006, which if passed would, among other things, make it illegal for any United States business to locate “user-identifiable” data in China and other “internet restricting countries,” and would require companies to be transparent about what political and religious material governments are requiring them to censor. In July the European Parliament passed a resolution welcoming the Global Online Freedom Act and urging the European Union Council of Ministers to “agree a joint statement confirming their commitment to the protection of internet users’ rights and the promotion of free expression on the internet world-wide.”

Academics and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are also working with companies to draft a voluntary code of conduct for Internet and telecommunications companies that would commit companies to business practices consistent with upholding and protecting the right to freedom of political and religious expression consistent with international human rights law and norms.

In this report, we have documented the different ways in which companies such as Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and Skype are assisting and reinforcing the Chinese government’s system of arbitrary, opaque and unaccountable political censorship.1 This report documents the way in which these companies actively, openly, and deliberately (by their own admission) collaborate with the Chinese government’s system of Internet censorship:

Yahoo!: Yahoo! has handed over user information on four Chinese government critics to the Chinese authorities, resulting in their trial and conviction. Yahoo!'s Chinese search engine is heavily censored. Based on examination of Yahoo!’s services and of feedback gathered from Chinese Internet users, Human Rights Watch has found that Yahoo! censors its Chinese-language search engine to a very similar degree as domestic Chinese Internet companies (such as China’s largest domestic search engine, Baidu), and much more heavily than MSN and Google. Perhaps responding to criticism about a lack of transparency, in late July 2006 Yahoo! China added a notice at the bottom of its search engine informing users that some results may not appear "in accordance with relevant laws and regulations". (See Appendix VIII for letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Yahoo! and Yahoo!’s response regarding company practices in China.)

Microsoft: In June 2005—a month after MSN China rolled out its Chinese portal—Microsoft came under criticism from the press and bloggers around the world for censoring words such as “democracy” and “freedom” in the titles of its Chinese blogs, at the request of the Chinese government. Microsoft has made efforts in recent months to revise its practices and minimize censorship of Chinese bloggers, although the extent to which censorship has been lessened across the board remains unclear. MSN has a Chinese search engine, currently in “beta” test mode, which appears to de-list webpages and censor some Chinese keywords. MSN Chinese “beta” search in some cases informs users that censorship occurred, but not in others. MSN’s Chinese search engine, while still in development, does provide the user with more information on politically sensitive subjects than either Yahoo! or Baidu. (See Appendix IX for letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Microsoft and Microsoft’s response regarding company practices in China.)

Google: In January 2006 Google rolled out its censored search engine, does provide notice to users when search results have been censored but provides no further details. The company announced that it would not provide email or blog-hosting services in China, at least for now, in order to avoid being pressured to cooperate with Chinese police in handing over user data as in the case of Yahoo!, and to avoid having to directly censor user-created content as in the case of MSN Spaces. Google justified its censored search engine by arguing that users could rely on for uncensored searches; however, Chinese Internet users have reported widespread blockage of by Chinese ISPs. Human Rights Watch testing shows that the censored, while denying access to the full range of information available on the World Wide Web, still enables the Chinese user to access substantially more information on sensitive political and religious subjects than its Chinese competitors. (See Appendix X for letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Google regarding company practices in China.)

Skype: Skype, which provides a way for Internet users around the world to communicate directly by voice, video and text chat, now has a Chinese-language version developed and marketed in China by the Chinese company TOM Online. Skype executives have publicly acknowledged that the TOM-Skype software censors sensitive words in text chats, and have justified this as in keeping with local “best practices” and Chinese law. However Skype does not inform Chinese users of the specific details of its censorship policies, and does not inform them that their software contains censorship capabilities. (See Appendix XI for letter sent by Human Rights Watch to Skype and Skype’s response regarding company practices in China.)

Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google have not publicized the list of sites or keywords being censored, and have not clarified which Chinese laws are being violated by the terms and web addresses censored by their Chinese search engines or services (and also blog-hosting services in the case of Microsoft). Thus it is impossible to evaluate the veracity of the claim each company makes that it is simply following Chinese law. Skype has not clarified what laws TOM-Skype would be violating by not censoring users’ conversations.

The above companies are complicit in the Chinese government’s censorship of political and religious information and/or the monitoring of peaceful speech in various ways—and, it is important to note, to widely varying degrees. They have all accepted at least some Chinese government demands without mounting any meaningful challenge to them. These are by no means the only multinational companies that currently facilitate Chinese government censorship and surveillance. But they are the most prominent examples, whose contribution to China’s censorship regime to date is most well documented and publicly visible.

In response to criticism, these companies all insist that despite the constraints under which they operate they are still helping to increase the Chinese people’s access to the Internet, access to more information, and greater means for self-expression. Companies certainly can make a positive contribution to freedom of expression in China, and that is something Human Rights Watch supports and encourages. But we believe that companies are only doing so if they are improving or maintaining high ethical standards that, at the very least, are consistent with international law and norms. The burden of proof as to whether they are making a positive impact in comparison to their domestic competitors should be on the companies themselves, rather than leaving the public to guess or discover the companies’ ethical standards on their own––in some cases by going to jail.

These companies also argue that they have no choice but to comply with Chinese law and regulations in order to access the Chinese market. Human Rights Watch does not believe that the choice for companies is to either continue current practices or to leave China. Rather, we believe companies can and should make ethical choices about what specific products and services they will provide to the Chinese people––and the manner in which they are provided––without playing a pro-active role in censorship or collaborating in repression. While some companies have said that they have adopted more rigorous processes and procedures to determine when to censor or abide by government demands, none of the companies discussed in this report have said they will refuse such demands, or appear to have actively resisted them. For this reason, we believe that legislation backed up by a substantive voluntary corporate code of conduct would help companies to uphold meaningful standards of conduct and make it more difficult for the Chinese government to retaliate against individual companies, since all of these companies would be bound by the same rules.

Any such regulation should be accompanied by meaningful efforts on the part of companies, business associations, government trade representatives, and international trade bodies to lobby against laws, regulations, and government pressures––in China and elsewhere––that force companies to act as censors. By forcing companies into this role, the Chinese government creates an opaque and uneven playing field in which companies compete not on business merits but on their level of cooperation with a censorship regime that trammels internationally protected rights.

We believe that legislation accompanied by constructive lobbying for regulatory change is in the long-term commercial interest of the companies. By offering diminished services, companies are not actually competing on the overall superiority of their products; instead they are adopting the lowest common denominator set by the Chinese government. Unless companies agree to draw the ethical line or have it drawn for them, it will be very difficult for them to escape the current “race to the bottom,” as companies cave in to Chinese government pressure to increase their censorship levels and compliance with government demands for user information, to match the level of whichever company is censoring and compromising user data the most.

Ultimately, none of the companies discussed in this report have a long-term technical advantage over their Chinese competitors. In the long run, user loyalty will depend on their level of trust. In researching Chinese user reaction to the different choices made by multinational Internet companies, we have found that trustworthiness and transparency are indeed important to Chinese users, as they are to users elsewhere. Furthermore, the way in which an Internet company treats its users in one country can impact that company’s global image. Users can reasonably be expected to ask: if a company contributes to the jailing of government critics in China, isn’t it also likely to do so elsewhere?

As the Chinese Internet and wireless communications sectors continue to grow, more and more international companies will continue to face pressure from the Chinese government to supply equipment used for censorship and surveillance, hand over user information, and actively censor user content. It is also important to note that many governments around the world are watching the way in which companies are adapting their business practices to Chinese government demands. If Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others actively collaborate with political censorship in China, it will be difficult for them to turn down similar requests made by other governments seeking to control their citizens. Human Rights Watch believes that Internet companies can and should draw a much clearer line between ethical and unethical business practices, and should revise their business practices in China and in all countries where unaccountable governments censor the Internet in an arbitrary, non-transparent, and unaccountable manner. If they cannot do so, concerned citizens around the world should use their power as consumers, investors, and voters to demand a commitment by Internet and technology companies to respect and uphold the fundamental, universal human rights of their customers and users.

[1] This report focuses exclusively on the Internet companies whose software, services, communications, and content hosting businesses have participated actively in censorship. This report does not address the hardware companies such as Cisco, Nortel, Juniper, and others whose routers, while critical in the building of China’s Internet infrastructure, and whose filtering technology, while essential for the protection of networks from viruses and worms, are also used by the Chinese government to carry out censorship. While Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned about the latter, we believe the hardware and Internet content businesses involve different issues––technically, legally, and in terms of corporate intent.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>August 2006