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Companies, governments can fight Internet censors

Here's a story you would have trouble finding on the World Wide Web from China: Western companies are helping that country's government censor the Internet, and sometimes they even help it silence critics by providing user information.

New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report Thursday about what is often called China's "Internet Firewall." The report — "Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship" — criticized companies including Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Skype.

The report called for legislation and a strong industry code of conduct.

Some of the companies, in fact, have asked the U.S. government to help by discussing the issue with Beijing.

"While we will actively work to encourage governments around the world to embrace policies on Internet content that foster the freer exchange of ideas and promote maximum access to information, we also recognize that, acting alone, our leverage and ability to influence government policies in various countries is severely limited," Yahoo and Microsoft said in a joint letter to a Congressional Human Rights Caucus early this year. Google sent a similar letter.

Human Rights Watch detailed some of the practices it finds objectionable:

  • Yahoo identified private users to Chinese authorities, resulting in imprisonment and heavy sentences for four government critics.
  • Microsoft censored searches and blog titles to avoid sensitive political topics, and deleted or blocked blogs expressing peaceful political views.
  • Google launched a censored search engine,, in response to Chinese government pressure.
  • Skype's Chinese software censors sensitive words in text chats without informing users.

    Human Rights Watch reasons that the companies must work together to establish high ethical standards, and that laws are needed so that companies don't try to outdo each other in mollifying the Chinese government.

    Internet companies defend themselves by saying that they are only following Chinese laws and that despite the restrictions, they are helping bring the Chinese people more information than they've ever had before.

    They are right on that second point, and information will probably bring more freedom eventually to the Chinese people. But Human Rights Watch seems to be saying there are ways to accelerate this process. The Internet companies and other governments need not accept the Chinese policies lying down.

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