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China's Internet Crackdown

Mandates for Internet and telecom firms further limit netizens' freedom to search the Web.

Published in: Forbes

Tighten the screws. That's the Chinese government's response to growing corporate discontent with China's pervasive electronic censorship and surveillance system. Barely a month since Google pulled the plug on its China-based search engine, the Chinese government started demanding deeper corporate complicity with China's security agencies.

On April 29 the Chinese government moved to impose a wider role for Internet and telecom firms in the country's pervasive censorship and surveillance apparatus when China's National People's Congress Standing Committee approved an amendment to the revised draft Law of Guarding State Secrets, which will require Internet and telecom network operators to proactively monitor their networks for any content thatfalls within the definition of "state secrets."

The problem is, almost anything can fall into that basket, and it is entirely at the whim of censoring officials what does. Although the draft revised law must be approved at the annual meeting of China's legislature, it constitutes a palpable threat to Internet and telecom companies already leery of requirements to deepen their links with China's security agencies.

The Chinese government has long classified state secrets ex­tremely broadly, including information that is related to "economic and social development," as well as a catch-all "other matters" category. National and local officials decide whether published materials are a state secret, and those determinations cannot be legally challenged. The amendment explicitly requires Internet and telecom operators to "cooperate with public security organs, state security agencies [and] prosecutors" on suspected cases of state secrets transmission and to cease that transmission, record it as evidence and then delete it from the public domain.

The amendment spotlights fresh concerns about the ethical obligations of China's remaining foreign Internet search engine operators, including Yahoo and Microsoft. Unlike Google, which ended its five years of complicity with Chinese censors in March 2010, those two firms continue to bend to official dictates to censor any searches on topics the Chinese government categorizes as "sensitive." Those topics range from information about the June 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Tibetan independence and the banned Falun Gong spiritual group to Chinese-language searches about China's President Hu Jintao.

Foreign Internet and telecom network firms operating in China should be especially mindful of the risks that compliance with the new revised draft law on state secrets poses to the integrity of their brands and public reputations. Yahoo knows well the cost of complicity with China's security agencies. In 2002 Yahoo voluntarily signed something called the "Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry," which encouraged signatory firms to identify and prevent the transmission of virtually any information that Chinese authorities or companies deem objectionable. Two years later Yahoo disclosed the identity of the journalist Shi Tao, who had posted notes on a foreign website from a directive issued by China's Publicity Department (formerly known as the Propaganda Department) on how to handle the 15th anniversary of the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Yahoo's role in turning over user information led to Shi Tao's arrest, conviction and 10-year prison term on a charge of "divulging state secrets abroad." Public revulsion at Yahoo's betrayal of Shi Tao inflicted serious damage to the firm's brand and earned it withering criticism at a 2007 U.S. congressional hearing when chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Lantos castigated Yahoo's management, saying: "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies."

Compliance with the revised draft secrets law is also at odds with the goals of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a voluntary initiative to protect privacy and freedom of expression online that brings together private firms, human rights organizations (including Human Rights Watch), academics and socially responsible investors.

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo--all GNI members--should collectively oppose Chinese government requirements dictating they play an active and intrusive role in policing content on their Chinese networks and actively advocate for a scrapping of the recently agreed amendment. Foreign Internet and telecommunications firms should refuse to be complicit with the Chinese government's repressive electronic censorship and surveillance regime.

Instead, with the backing of governments and international business federations such as the U.S. and E.U. chambers of commerce, these companies should press the Chinese authorities to lift requirements on search engine operators to censor searches, and demand the government narrow its definition of "state secrets" and rein in the unlimited discretion of officials to censor.

A debacle in July 2009 demonstrates that such a unified challenge can bear fruit. When China required that all computer manufacturers preinstall the controversial Green Dam/Youth Escort Internet filter on computers sold in China, it provoked concerted opposition from a diverse coalition of foreign governments, industry associations, civil society and Chinese netizens. Beijing shelved the measure indefinitely.

The revised Law on Guarding State Secrets gives foreign Internet and telecommunications firms an opportunity to take a stand that they will no longer pursue market share in China at the expense of universal human rights and freedoms. Too few have even adopted standards, such as GNI's, and fewer still are putting them into practice.

It is also an important moment for governments to resist China's onerous requirements. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated a promising approach to Internet freedom in January that included concerted government efforts to safeguard human rights and an expectation that companies act responsibly.

The U.S. and other administrations should put words into action and push back on the Chinese government's new censorship and surveillance initiatives, while encouraging global information companies to act responsibly.

Phelim Kine is a Hong Kong-based Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.  

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