WASHINGTON—A new online campaign from Amnesty International and a far-reaching bill in Congress are increasing the pressure on three Internet giants—Microsoft, Yahoo and Google—to stop assisting China's massive efforts to censor Internet use.
The three companies "directly and admittedly contradicted their values and stated policies" by undermining free expression and access to information in China, Amnesty charges in a report that examines the business deals made with the Chinese government.
Amnesty also launched a global effort (http://irrepressible.info) urging bloggers and other users to fight back by posting content censored by China, Vietnam, Iran, Syria and other countries, pushing for the release of jailed dissidents and lobbying governments and companies to change their policies.
The campaign comes as legislation is making progress in Congress that would force these companies to report the details of their agreements with countries that restrict their citizens' Internet use.
The bill in the House of Representatives also would prohibit companies from blocking access to U.S. government Web sites, such as Radio Free Asia, or turning over personal data to a foreign government.
The three companies responded to the Amnesty criticism with variations on a central theme: that it's better to provide access to lots of information, with restrictions, than no information.
With more than 120 million people online, China is second only to the United States in Internet use. Chinese officials have created the world's most sophisticated Internet-filtering system, according to the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. China blocks access to a wide range of political content with the cooperation of U.S. companies.
"We have to guard against the creation of two Internets: one for expression and one for repression," Larry Cox, the executive director of Amnesty's U.S. office, said in a statement.
In China, Microsoft Corp. has shut down a blog at the government's request and Google Inc. launched a censored version of its search engine.
Yahoo Inc. signed a "pledge of self-discipline" with China to "refrain from posting or disseminating information that may jeopardize state security." The company provided personal user data to Chinese officials that helped lead to the imprisonment of two dissidents.
All three companies defended their actions.
"We believe in freedom for users to connect to the people and information that is important to them, but Microsoft will continue to comply with local laws," the company said in a statement. "It's better to be in these markets with our services and communications tools, as opposed to not being there."
Yahoo is "deeply concerned about this issue" and is consulting with Amnesty and several governments about its policies, spokeswoman Mary Osako said. The company adheres to "rigorous procedural protections" when governments ask for information, she said.
"We can make more of a difference by having a limited presence and growing our influence than we can by not operating in a particular country at all," she added.
Google works to protect users' privacy, and it decided against launching e-mail and blog services in China because of those concerns, spokeswoman Debbie Frost said. Google also discloses to users when information has been removed from its search results, a development that Amnesty praised.
Last month, during a visit to Washington, Google co-founder Sergey Brin acknowledged that the company complied with "a set of rules we weren't comfortable with" when it set up its self-censoring Chinese search engine.
An Amnesty representative welcomed the "ongoing discussions" with Internet companies on censorship, but said the London-based rights organization would keep the pressure on. Its report highlights how the Internet companies often invoke the promise of online freedom and unbridled communication.
"I don't think they're used to this sort of criticism," Mila Rosenthal said. "And we hope to keep this issue alive with the help of bloggers. This will attract left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans."
Amnesty disputes the argument that the presence of Internet companies in China will improve access to information, citing recent reports that the government has become more effective and sophisticated in its filtering.
Along with the Amnesty campaign, the companies face the possibility of new rules from Congress, via a bill that has bipartisan support.
After a February hearing that featured House members grilling officials from the Internet companies, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., introduced the measure, which would regulate how the companies do business in China and any other country designated as "Internet-restricting."
An International Relations subcommittee last month approved the bill, which carries an ambitious title, the Global Online Freedom Act. Smith said he hoped that the full committee would take up the legislation in September.
Internet companies would be forced to report on their business deals to a new office in the State Department, and could face fines or lawsuits if they turn over personal data to a foreign government.
"The impact of embarrassment could have a curative effect on these companies," Smith said in an interview. "We're trying to reach their consciences. Information is crucial, because human-rights abuses flourish when there's ignorance or indifference."
Smith said his bill followed his successful efforts to get the State Department to collect data and issue periodic reports on human trafficking and religious freedom.
"Online freedom is a new area, but we're going to stay on this," Smith said, vowing that the well-publicized hearing in February was "not a flash in the pan."
The bill has the backing of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Religious Freedom Coalition and 11 other rights groups. Its co-sponsors range from Republican representatives such as Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a leading opponent of illegal immigration, to Democratic Reps. Tom Lantos of California and Donald Payne of New Jersey, a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Time may run out on Smith's bill for this year, but the legislation and the Amnesty campaign have fueled a debate about the best ways to protect Internet users' rights around the world.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a censorship expert with the Berkman Center and former CNN bureau chief in Beijing, said the Amnesty report made a compelling argument about the three companies' complicity with Chinese censorship.
But MacKinnon, who visited China recently, said the reaction of users and entrepreneurs was complex. Some Chinese complain about the arbitrary nature of the censorship they deal with, but they see U.S. efforts to intervene as "another way in which Westerners are trying to tell the Chinese people how to run their country."
MacKinnon also said the House bill was "hypocritical and arrogant" because it ignored the actions of many other governments—including India and the United States—that were pressuring Internet and telecommunications companies to compromise privacy and limit access to some information.
MAJOR PROVISIONS OF THE GLOBAL ONLINE FREEDOM ACT:
_It would require Internet companies to disclose the terms they filter and the rules they must observe in "Internet-restricting" countries.
_It would bar companies from giving foreign governments information that personally identifies a user, except for legitimate law-enforcement purposes.
_It would bar companies from blocking or removing the online content of U.S. government sites or government-financed sites.
_It would establish a new Office of Global Internet Freedom in the State Department to monitor online censorship, issue periodic reports and develop a strategy to combat state-sponsored Internet jamming.
For more information online, go to:
_The Amnesty International report and information on its online freedom campaign are available at www.amnestyusa.org.
_The text of the Global Online Freedom Act can be found on the congressional Web site http://thomas.loc.gov. Search for "HR 4780."
_A thorough review of filtering and surveillance efforts by governments and companies can be found at www.opennetinitiative.org
_Rebecca MacKinnon's recent post on "China, the Internet and Human Rights" can be found at http://rconversation.blogs.com under "Featured posts."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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