Tech firms blamed for aiding censorship in China

While China’s large online population and growing economic development represent an irresistible lure for many IT vendors, any technology they provide that helps the Chinese government impose Internet censorship makes them partially to blame for human rights abuses, a new report by Amnesty International (AI) claims.

The human rights group said in a report released last week that it “remains concerned that in their pursuit of new and lucrative markets, foreign corporations may be indirectly contributing to human rights violations or at the very least failing to give adequate consideration to the human rights implications of their investments.”

The group specifically named technology firms Microsoft Corp., Nortel Networks Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc. for deals they have done in China which AI believes have contributed to the government’s ability to monitor and censor public Internet use in what it sees as a major strike against freedom of expression.

According to the report, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of people detained in China over the last year for expressing their opinions online. What’s more, the Chinese government has been increasing its surveillance and monitoring of cyber cafes, Internet service providers and businesses in the country, AI said.

By the end of 2003, China had 79.5 million Internet users, 34.5 per cent more than it did the previous year, making the country both a huge lure for international investment and more difficult for the government to control, AI said.

But despite the group’s charges of corporate culpability, the major IT vendors named in the report refuted direct responsibility for the situation in China.

Microsoft said in a statement Monday that how its technology is used is “with the individual and ultimately not in the company’s control.”

Microsoft established a research centre in Beijing in 1998 and signed a software development deal with the Chinese government in June 2002, pledging an investment of about US$750 million.

Cisco and Nortel also dismissed charges that they are collaborating with the Chinese government to impose Net censorship. In statements released Monday Nortel said that it “categorically rejected” the claims that it aids any government in repressing human rights and Cisco said that it “has not specifically designed any products for the Chinese government or for any regional market to block or filter content.”

Sun, which recently forged a deal with the government-backed China Standard Software Co. Ltd. to provide up to one million licenses of its Linux-based Java Desktop System in China, was not immediately available to respond to the charges Monday.

Although the vendors have dismissed claims that they are taking part in China’s Net censorship practices, AI has said that their responses as a whole have been “inadequate,” especially given recent rules adopted by the United Nations (U.N.).

The U.N. Human Rights Norm for Business adopted in August 2003 states that “enterprises shall refrain from any activity which supports, solicits, or encourages States or any other entities to abuse human rights. They shall further seek to ensure that the goods and services they provide will not be used to abuse human rights.”

The U.N. norm is not legally binding, but Louise Vischer, a campaigner of Amnesty International China, said Amnesty is encouraging companies to follow it. “These companies have a much greater understanding now of how their technology is being used and they should take this into account when in discussions with the Chinese government,” Vischer said. She added that the main goal is to free individuals jailed for expressing their views.

While the group is making a connection between the IT vendors’ products and the curbing of free speech, the vendors themselves have been emphasizing their roles in helping the economic development of China through direct investment. Besides providing technology, some IT firms have outsourced manufacturing and research to the country.

It remains to be seen how IT vendors will measure the claimed social benefits of their investments in China with calls from right groups like Amnesty to take a stand against government practices.