Advocates Cheer as Google Challenges China

Human rights advocates around the globe are cheering an announcement from Google, Inc. that it will no longer censor content in China, following a cyber attack on its infrastructure that originated there. The move could force the company’s withdrawal from the Chinese market.

Google believes the goal of the attack was to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights advocates.

“We can only welcome the courage shown by Google’s executives. A foreign IT company . . . is standing up to the Chinese authorities, who keep clamping down more and more on the Internet,” Reporters Without Borders said in a press release. “We call on other IT companies to form a common front, and we urge the Chinese authorities to reconsider their position. Google seems to have opened a breach — the cooperation of Western companies in the control of news and information is no longer systematic.”

China has long been a target of human rights groups over concerns related to free speech, free expression, privacy rights and the Internet. Chinese authorities have purposefully and systematically sought to shut down access to any Web site that they deem to contain illegal or “dangerous” material. Methods used have ranged from deploying cyber-police to track users’ activities, to a thwarted effort to require all personal computers sold in China to carry filtering software (an incident known as China’s Green Dam).

Corporations in the ICT sector have also run afoul of human rights advocates for their cooperation with Chinese authorities. While most observers agree that the private sector is not in the business of human rights, companies and stakeholders also broadly agree on the concept of “do no harm.” As a result, operating in countries like China, Cuba, Egypt and Iran, where authorities are known to use evidence gleaned from individuals’ online activities, has presented a dilemma for the ICT sector.

Most providers have argued that keeping their services available in repressive countries helps residents there exercise freedoms and connect to the world. But their record has not been spotless.

Yahoo! Inc. drew intense fire from rights advocates over its role in helping the Chinese government identify, prosecute and imprison dissidents. The company’s chief executive Jerry Yang found himself facing down U.S. congressional hearings in 2007 over the company’s decision to provide e-mail records to Chinese authorities.

Yahoo! very publicly sided with Google today.

It’s uncommon for global corporations to take such a public stand on politically charged issues, especially when doing so might jeopardizes access to the massive Chinese market.

“At the very least, public discussion of censorship in China might help move things forward for Chinese Web users. And public exposure of the persecution of human rights defenders in China . . . can again only be for the good,” Amnesty International wrote on its blog Wednesday.

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