Getting Internet Giants to Face Up to China
See Also: Thailand Gets ‘Net-Tough
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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?”
officials have not yet responded.
Crets is a senior analyst at Media Partners Asia, an independent
media consulting firm.