(New York, August 9, 2002)
-Yahoo! Inc. risks complicity in rights abuses if it remains a signatory to China's "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry," Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Yahoo!'s CEO Terry Semel, to detail these concerns, but as of today has received no response.
"If it implements the pledge, Yahoo! will become an agent of Chinese law enforcement. It will switch from being an information gateway to an information gatekeeper."
Executive Director of Human Rights Watch
"If it implements the pledge, Yahoo! will become an agent of Chinese law enforcement," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director. "It will switch from being an information gateway to an information gatekeeper."
Signatories to the voluntary pledge agree to investigate all websites to which they provide links, block anything the Chinese government would consider "harmful information," and report those sites to Chinese authorities. The government of the People's Republic of China systematically restricts public expression of oppositional views on such subjects as religion and politics. The Internet Society of China initiated the pledge this spring. Hundreds of its members, including Chinese companies, universities, and government offices, have signed on.
The Internet Society of China is the major professional association for the Internet industry. While the ISOC is called a "non-governmental organization," all such groups are at least partly linked with a larger government work unit (danwei) that is responsible for their activities. In the case of the Internet Society of China, that work unit is the Ministry of Information Industry. As a rule, China's "non-governmental organizations" are funded directly by the government through the work unit system, and often function as think tanks for state policy.
The pledge commits signatories to make "energetic efforts to carry forward the rich cultural tradition of the Chinese nation and the ethical norms of the socialist cultural civilization" by observing all state industry regulations. In particular, signatories vow to "[refrain] from producing, posting, or disseminating pernicious information that may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability."
"Some Internet companies argue that they advance the cause of free expression simply by their presence in China," Roth said. "But if a powerful industry leader such as Yahoo! submits so readily to official censorship requests, it sells short the potential of this new medium to break Beijing's grasp on the free flow of information."
Chinese government agencies block thousands of Internet sites believed to carry politically "harmful" or pornographic content. In the past two years, however, thousands of small Internet storefront cafes have sprung up around the country, making state control difficult. A fire in a Beijing Internet cafe on June 16, allegedly set by children, killed 25 people, and became the spur to a broader government crackdown. Since June, state authorities have announced plans to close 150,000 unlicensed Internet cafes nationwide and have passed new regulations requiring online publishers to "guarantee the legality" of their content. Internet cafes will also be required to install software capable of blocking designated foreign websites. Individuals who post or forward information that authorities find objectionable have been jailed.
Many Chinese Internet users who use Internet cafes rely on free services, such as e-mail and web access, provided by Yahoo!. This makes the U.S.-based firm especially prominent in China.
"Voluntary codes of corporate conduct upholding human rights standards have become increasingly commonplace in old economy industries such as apparel, footwear, and even oil and gas," said Roth. "It is ironic that a 'new economy' company would sign on to what is in effect a code of misconduct that would undermine human rights."
Yahoo!'s decision to sign the pledge places it at odds with global industry organizations. The Internet Society, an international industry association that requires all its members to commit to free expression, said that the Internet Society of China is not an affiliate because of its reluctance to make that basic human rights commitment.
On July 30, Human Rights Watch wrote to request a meeting with Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel to discuss free expression issues in China. Yahoo! has not yet responded.