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Google, Alta Vista: Resist Chinese Censorship

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Free Expression on the Internet

Corporations and Human Rights

September 7, 2002

Dr. Eric E. Schmidt, Chief Executive Officer
Google Global Headquarters
2400 Bayshore Parkway
Mountain View CA 94043
phone: 650-330-0100
fax: 650-618-1499

James Barnett, Chief Executive Officer
AltaVista Company
1070 Arastradero Road
Palo Alto, CA 94304
P: 650-320-7700
F: 650-320-7399

Dear Dr. Schmidt and Mr. Barnett:

We are writing to express our outrage at the Chinese government's reported blocking of access to Google and AltaVista. We strongly suspect that this blockage is related to China's recent widespread crackdown on the free flow of information over the Internet, and to its growing pressure on foreign companies to comply with state censorship. We urge your companies to continue to resist the Chinese government´s censorship pressure as a violation of internationally recognized rights of free expression.


Companies that do business in China have an opportunity to play a proactive role in opening space for Chinese citizens to express themselves freely.

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director of Human Rights Watch


 

As you know, search engines such as Google and AltaVista play a critical role in ensuring the free flow of information to millions of users in China. Chinese users who want to read objective news, and educate themselves on such restricted topics as human rights, Tibet, religion, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, often rely on your search engines. The Chinese government blocks access to thousands of web sites based on their content. Using Google and AltaVista remains one of the best ways to circumvent this censorship, since it permits searches that may turn up restricted information in unexpected locations that have not been blocked. We suspect it is just this formidable power that attracted the attention of Chinese government censors. Google´s practice of keeping and permitting access to “cached” pages – which are accessible via Google even if direct access is blocked – may also have been a factor.

Companies that do business in China have an opportunity to play a proactive role in opening space for Chinese citizens to express themselves freely. Unfortunately, Yahoo!, along with a number of Chinese internet businesses and research institutes, has voluntarily signed a public pledge on "self-discipline" in China that commits the company to investigate and block websites based on their content. We believe that signatories to that pledge risk making themselves partners in violations of freedom of expression. If they are search engines, they also risk undermining the power and reputation of their product.

We strongly urge Google and AltaVista to continue to resist any censorship pressure from the Chinese government. In the past, Google has resisted pressure from interest groups to censor content, and we understand that AltaVista is making an effort to ensure that Chinese users continue to have access to its site despite the recent blockage. As you continue these commendable efforts, you will have the support of nongovernmental organizations, as well as allies in the U.S. government and the broader private sector. History has shown that coordinated action can be effective in forcing the Chinese government to back off from efforts to censor the Internet. When the Chinese government tried to clamp down on the commercial use of cryptography in October 1999, coordinated efforts by various companies and trade agencies forced the Chinese government to drop the requirement that encryption codes be turned over.

We see such censorship efforts as an emerging problem in China and elsewhere. We would greatly appreciate an opportunity to discuss this matter with you directly, and look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Roth
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch