People at an internet cafe in Hubei province.

(New York) - Facebook risks abetting Chinese government abuses unless it creates human rights safeguards before entering that market, Human Rights Watch said today. Facebook should say publicly how it plans to protect users from surveillance and censorship by the Chinese government, which is in the midst of a crackdown on dissent.

In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and chief executive officer, on May 10, 2011, Human Rights Watch warned the company that it could become complicit in government censorship and efforts both to stifle online organizing and obtain the personal information of cyber-activists or online critics of the Chinese government. Facebook has been in contact with Human Rights Watch about the letter, but has not formally responded to the question of how it will safeguard human rights online in China and elsewhere.

"Facebook has enabled millions of people to exercise their rights in the Middle East," said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. "It would be a tragedy if Chinese users find themselves in danger for speaking their minds on Facebook or because they ‘like' human rights."

Facebook is blocked in China. Over the last several months, the news media have reported that the company is planning to enter the Chinese market, perhaps in partnership with Baidu is the most heavily used search engine in China, but it aggressively censors content.

More troubling perhaps, Human Rights Watch said, was a statement by Adam Conner, a Facebook lobbyist, in a Wall Street Journal article in April. "Maybe we will block content in some countries, but not others," he was quoted as saying. He said in commenting about the company's possible entry into China that, "We are occasionally held in uncomfortable positions because now we're allowing too much, maybe, free speech in countries that haven't experienced it before."   

Facebook should describe any human rights policies or procedures the company has put into place to protect its users in China or globally, Human Rights Watch said. Facebook also should say how it might adapt its policy requiring users to register under their real names. That policy could put people in China at risk online because the Chinese government wants that information to identify its critics.

Facebook should also describe how it would manage a partnership with Baidu and how it would address Chinese government demands to censor content, Human Rights Watch said. 

"Facebook has more users than many countries have people, but it hasn't explained how they will protect the rights of the hundreds of millions of people using their services," Ganesan said. "If Facebook is going to go into China, now is a good time to start."

Human Rights Watch believes that companies such as Facebook should have effective policies and procedures in place to safeguard human rights online. Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a voluntary effort that obliges companies to implement principles to protect freedom of expression and user privacy online. It also believes that regulation is essential to ensuring that companies respect their users' and customers' human rights.

The company's possible entry into China coincides with an aggressive effort by the Chinese government to silence dissent. Since mid-February, the government has arrested, detained, "disappeared," put under house arrest, summoned for interrogation, or threatened with arrest more than 200 people who were merely engaged in peaceful dissent or social activism. The government has also significantly increased internet censorship, forced several newspaper editors to step down, and imposed new restrictions on foreign media reporting in Beijing.

Human Rights Watch believes that these efforts are partly motivated by the government's desire to prevent the type of networking and organizing that the availability of Facebook helped to facilitate in the Middle East.

"The Chinese government is the model for abusive governments that want to control the internet and silence dissent, while Facebook has become a key tool that allows people to exercise their rights to free speech," Ganesan said. "Facebook needs to decide whether it is on the side of rights - or of repression."