Report says legislation could stop censorship in China

A human rights watchdog urged governments in U.S. and Europe to adopt new legislation that would prevent Internet companies from censoring their content or keeping records of users’ online behavior in China, the group said in a report released on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch suggested that governments pass legislation forbidding companies from storing user data in countries where there is a strong record of punishing people for exercising basic rights like freedom of expression. New laws should also prohibit companies from complying with undocumented requests for censorship, the group said.

If these laws and others are enacted, all companies will operate according to the same standards, according to the group. Otherwise, all of them will essentially end up operating to the standard set by the company most eager to please the Chinese government, the group said.

Human Rights Watch also criticized the powerhouses of the online world including Yahoo Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Skype Ltd. for unnecessarily complying with requests from the Chinese government to censor their content and reveal information about Chinese Internet users. The group argues that most Internet companies don’t try to resist demands from the Chinese government and that they should only comply with censorship requests if such requests are made through legally binding and documented procedures.

Human Rights Watch suggested other new laws that might help cut back on censorship in China including one that requires companies to note on their Web sites when a government has forced them to censor data.

The Internet companies have been criticized already for their actions in China, including in a recent report by Amnesty International. At the time, Yahoo and Microsoft defended their policies by saying that they must comply with local laws.

Yahoo said it believes that offering even a limited presence in a country can make a bigger difference than having no presence in the country at all.

In reaction to the Amnesty report, Google said that its service expands the access to information in China and that it doesn’t offer services such as blogging or e-mail in China because it can’t guarantee the privacy of customers.

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