Amnesty International is trying to raise awareness about cyber-censorship to make it a larger issue at the Internet Governance Forum (see here), a special UN conference that looks at the development of the Internet, which starts Monday in Athens. Google will also be present at the IGF, asserting that it is a proponent of free speech while debating intellectual property rights and how to connect Africa to the internet (see here). Google will declare itself unrepentant over the controversial decision to censor its search engine at the behest of Beijing, and it will insist that its presence in China does more good than harm by getting more information to more people. Amnesty International has firmly rejected this view of Google.
Amnesty International has issued a 'Call to Bloggers', asking them to get online and stand up for freedom of expression on the internet. The organisation says this is a critical time when fundamental rights – particularly freedom of expression and privacy – are under threat from governments that want to control what their citizens say, and what information they can access. Google, Yahoo, and MSN all appease the censors in foreign countries (see here), and Yahoo has provided authorities with private and confidential information about its users that has been used to convict and imprison journalists (see here).
Among those that have been arrested are Chinese journalist Shi Tao, Tunisian lawyer and human rights defender Mohammed Abbou, and Vietnamese political dissident Truong Quoc Huy. Most recently, student activist and blogger Kianoosh Sanjari was arrested on October 7th while reporting on clashes between security forces and supporters of Shi'a cleric Ayatollah Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi. Kianoosh Sanjari is being held incommunicado at an unknown location and Amnesty International fears that he may be at risk of torture or ill-treatment (for more about Middle Eastern human rights see here).
Google in China
Richard Wray's article titled "The True Price of Doing Business in China: Are Yahoo and Google Betraying the Promise of the Internet as a Tool for Free Speech?" addresses some of the issues faced by companies doing business in a foreign country. Here's an excerpt:
Doing business in China has always involved a heavy dose of realpolitik - a senior mobile phone industry executive, desperate to get into the world's fastest growing mobile market, once described operating in China to me as akin to walking into a room and taking down his trousers. But what makes Yahoo's flagrant co-operation and the recent self-censorship carried out by search engine rival Google so shocking to web users, is that the internet has been sold to the world as a tool for free speech not for maintaining or even strengthening the political status quo.
Wray described compromises that have been made by Microsoft and Google. Citing a link to the Indiana School of Infomatics, viz. Censearchip, which compares results between google.com and google.cn, Wray said, "Discovering that a search for Tiananmen Square on Google's Chinese search engine produces pictures of happy smiling couples having their photos taken in the square and no hint of the violent repression of June 4, 1989, is just plain wrong."
As onerous as a law may be, it is the law of the land, and it is applied to foreigners and locals equally. If a foreign company or its shareholders have a problem with that, they can either comply and work to change it over time, or they can choose to do business elsewhere.
How patronising of The New York Times, the supposed bastion of all that is good about the American media, to suggest that a company may choose to ignore local laws at whim. How can the venerable Gray Lady, a staunch proponent of the primacy of rule of law, in good conscience suggest that a major American company scoff whatever laws it doesn't like and at he same time expect that company to avoid the consequences? China's leaders must adhere to the rule of law, but Google shouldn't?
I don't think the folks at Google are at all pleased with having to comply with this law, any more (and probably less) than Toyota's CFO is about having a large chunk of its U.S. profits sucked into Uncle Sam's hungry maw. Frankly, I'm far more ready to believe that Google's presence and actions in China will make a positive difference for the Chinese people, than I am likely to say the same about McDonald's or Coca-Cola.
Go ahead and second-guess a company's decision to do business overseas, particularly in markets where you are uncomfortable with the social costs of doing business. In fact, buy a share (or lots) in that company and make yourself heard as a shareholder. But do not question the obligation of a company to behave according to the law once its operations begin. Because when you start giving corporations the right to choose those laws with which they will or will not comply, you are setting the world on a slippery slope to a day when the corporation is answerable to no one.
Amongst other things, the NY Times article had this to say about Kai-fu Lee, the head of operations for Google in China:
The Internet, he says, will level the playing field for China's enormous rural underclass; once the country's small villages are connected, he says, students thousands of miles from Shanghai or Beijing will be able to access online course materials from M.I.T. or Harvard and fully educate themselves. Lee has been with Google since only last summer, but he wears the company's earnest, utopian ethos on his sleeve: when he was hired away from Microsoft, he published a gushingly emotional open letter on his personal Web site, praising Google's mission to bring information to the masses. He concluded with an exuberant equation that translates as "youth + freedom + equality + bottom-up innovation + user focus + don't be evil = The Miracle of Google."