Amnesty International last month launched a campaign demanding that online search companies stop complying with Internet censorship in China. The campaign targets Bay Area search engines Google and Yahoo!, along with Microsoft. With 105 million Chinese citizens plugging into cyberspace, can global search companies resist China's technological marketplace? Should citizens lack global, albeit incomplete, access to the Internet because of the government's repression of some information?
Amnesty's Irrepressible campaign targets corporate accountability, a departure from its usual focus on human rights violations by governments. Irrepressible.info features an online pledge calling on governments and companies to respect the Internet as a source for information dissemination. The pledge will be presented this fall at a United Nations conference on the future of the Internet. The campaign also advocates to make censored material available for publication on personal blogs and Web sites.
The goal of Irrepressible, Amnesty's corporate action network coordinator Tony Cruz told the Guardian, "is to put pressure on these companies to end the use of Internet censorship, which infringes on the basic human rights of the Chinese people."
Google launched a censored Chinese search engine called Google.cn. Microsoft shut down a blog at the government's request. Yahoo! provided Chinese authorities the private e-mail information of its users, resulting in prison sentences for two journalists. Irrepressible.info calls for the release of one, Shi Tao, who received a 10-year sentence for sending information on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in an e-mail. Amnesty has not let these matters go quietly and has taken its concerns to the heart of the companies: their annual shareholder meetings.
On May 25, Cruz addressed Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel and founder Jerry Yang, asking if the company would "call on the Chinese government to release Shi Tao, Li Zhi, and other innocent victims of China's online repression." Yahoo! execs never directly answered Cruz's request. When asked about the issue recently by the Guardian, a Yahoo! spokesperson issued a statement saying the company is "pursuing a number of initiatives" to address the concerns.
But Yahoo! no longer operates in China, at least not directly. Last year Yahoo! sold its China subsidiary to Chinese e-commerce specialist Alibaba, although Yahoo! holds a seat on its board. It is no longer necessary for Yahoo! to censor prohibited words, as searches on international search engines are filtered on China's end. That is Alibaba's responsibility.
But for Google.cn, censoring is up to Google. At Google's shareholder meeting in early May, Cruz addressed cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, asking if Google planned on assuring its customers that the company will not favor profit over human rights. The cofounders, in response, pointed their fingers at Yahoo! Brin explained that Google.com is still available uncensored in China and is used less than Google.cn. But Google spokespeople have publicized their position on China since the start of Google.cn, including the issues Amnesty targets in its campaign.
Before Google launched its Chinese search engine, Google.com was available worldwide, including in China. But the program had to travel through eight Chinese Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, which control how much information a user can access. Google's search engine slowed until service was all but stalled. Access to searches for "Tibet," "Falun Gong," and "Tiananmen Square" were denied.
This created two problems for Google: users were turning to faster China-based search engines, and results were filtered without disclosure to its users. Google faced an issue that touched on its most fundamental commitment — satisfying the interests of users by expanding access to information.