Getting Internet Giants to Face Up to China

See Also: Thailand Gets ‘Net-Tough

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When

Google capitulated last year to Chinese government demands that the

search engine’s censor its mainland search results, it was a

shock to true believers in the march of freedom on the Internet. But

it was just one of a series of public relations gaffes by

Internet-based companies that are spurring new attempts to press

media multinationals, including Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft, to

adopt a realistic code of ethics for doing business with restrictive

governments.

Google is

hardly the only offender among companies that once promoted a kind of

cheerful anarchy in cyberspace. For instance, a Yahoo! subsidiary has

also been cited by Amnesty International and other human rights

groups for cooperating with Chinese police to identify a local

activist who was then arrested and prosecuted. Other companies that

have come under fire for cooperating too closely with China include

Microsoft and Cisco Systems.

Tech

giants operating in China don’t stress the ethical principles

they follow in other parts of the world, particularly in the United

States and Europe. Lured by the massive, rapidly expanding market,

the Chinese government can take advantage of companies’ desire

for profit to compel obedience and use the technology to

disenfranchise users. Far from opening up the Internet in China, the

actions of Google and others have been a disheartening case of

Western companies getting in line with the restrictive practices

imposed by the Chinese state on their own large — and dominant

— Internet players, like Baidu,

the leading search engine.

The

efforts at a code of ethics, first announced in January, are centered

to a large extent in Hong Kong, where Rebecca

MacKinnon, a professor of new media at the University

of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center, is working to

promote an open platform for ideas and discussions. She recently

helped bring Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and UK-based Vodafone together

to discuss human rights principles in countries where deals with

governments are necessary. Other groups participating in development

of the guidelines include the Berkman Center for Internet &

Society at Harvard Law School, Human Rights Watch and Reporters

without Borders.

The new

process is already giving everybody headaches. While the participants

have agreed to develop a framework to hold signatories accountable in

the area of free expression and privacy, this is easier said than

done with a technology that can cross all borders freely until it

runs up against oppressive governments.

The boiling point is obviously censorship.

Search engines in China typically censor search queries on

“sensitive” topics to appease the government. MacKinnon

and other argue that censorship is actually a threat to the

multinationals’ business considerations, and that knuckling

under to repressive governments will eventually hurt the bottom line.

For now, she would like companies to find a middle ground.

”The

status quo is not satisfactory,” says MacKinnon, CNN’s

former Beijing bureau chief. “Freedom of expression and privacy

are important and these companies need to figure out a solution.”

While several companies have drafted their own principles, none have

ratified MacKinnon’s package, and none are expected to before

later this year. At most, these companies have joined a process,

MacKinnon says. And even getting to that point was difficult. “It's

been a real headache making conversation,” MacKinnon says.

“In

the long term, it screws their business and in the long term it

screws their relationship with their clients.” She says. “If

you're (the Chinese search engine) Baidu and you want people in the

European Union to trust your service, and everyone knows you censor

content, how do you convince your clients you are a reliable broker

of content?”

For now,

the pressure is domestic rather than international because the home

bases of western companies have strong human rights guarantees.

Google earned worldwide criticism last year when caved in to Chinese

demands for a censored search engine.

But

activists like MacKinnon avoid human rights rhetoric that could be

seen as a threat to recalcitrant governments. She says the focus is

on commercialism instead of activism

“We

should not expect companies to play a role to change a government.

The issue is really the relationship between the customer, the

company and the government. How can these companies stay firmly in

the middle?” she asks.

Companies

that don’t advertise their principles to consumers, or

companies that allow public relations firms to create a gulf between

perception and actual operations, ultimately run into trouble, she

says. Not wishing to endanger profitable government franchises,

companies may end up alienating the consumer.

That might

have seemed impossible a decade ago in the hurly burly of the

Internet, but a new world of Web empowerment has made used

brand-conscious deconstructionists who really want transparency and

responsiveness out of their favorite companies.

Yahoo!,

Google and Microsoft have acknowledged privately that the lack of

clear principles in these countries is a problem. Some say privately

that it's a cost of doing business in a place like China. They also

quietly still back the process MacKinnon is pushing, but it is a

difficult for one-time cyber-revolutionaries. In early May, Google’s

board of directors embarrassingly asked shareholders to vote down

proposed language requiring the company to resist government

censorship and notify Google users when governments require the

company to censor search results.

”The

presence of companies like Yahoo! in markets abroad can have a

transformative effect on peoples' lives and on local and national

economies,” Michael Samway, vice president and general counsel

for Yahoo! wrote on a Yahoo! business blog. “Information is

power. Access to information, especially through the Internet, has

changed what people know about the world around them and about

events, people and issues that directly impact their lives

day-to-day.”

What he

says is true, as far as it goes but users need to know what they are

not being told, so that they can make their own choices about the

types of services they use, says MacKinnon. “They do not know

what is being taken out of their information environment,” she

says.

When users

in China, for instance, try to access a website and find it blocked,

there is no message, like there is in most other countries, saying

why it has been blocked and who to contact in order to seek

clarification.

But that

may be changing. Not more than a month after China president Hu

Jintao announced that China officials should work to “purify”

the Internet, four prominent lawyers lashed out at the popular portal

Sina.com

for censoring articles that they deemed important for public

consumption. Screen shots of the bulletin boards where the messages

were posted show blank areas. In the letter, the lawyers issued six

points for clarification. One of them asks: “Sina.com,

please tell us: Why do you even believe that wilful deletion

corresponds to your commercial interests?”

Sina

officials have not yet responded.

Doug

Crets is a senior analyst at Media Partners Asia, an independent

media consulting firm.