Reporters Without Borders today deplored the "irresponsible" policies of major US Internet firms Yahoo! and Google in bowing directly and indirectly to Chinese government demands for censorship and called for a code of conduct to be imposed.
Yahoo! has been censoring its Chinese-language search-engine for several years and rival firm Google, which recently took a share in Baidu, a Chinese search-engine that filters a user's findings, seems ready to go the same way. In their efforts to conquer the Chinese market, the two firms are "making compromises that directly threaten freedom of expression," Reporters Without Borders said.
"The US government is supposed to be at the cutting-edge of the fight for online freedom, especially since passage of the Global Internet Freedom Act," the organisation noted in letters to two top US officials. "Yet it places no restrictions on private-sector activity even when firms work with some of the world's most repressive regimes. We condemn this hypocrisy and demand that companies such as Yahoo! and Google drop their irresponsible policies and pledge to respect freedom of information, including abroad."
Reporters Without Borders wrote to Yahoo chairman and chief executive Terry Semel last December asking him to respect the rights of China's Internet users but got no reply. It has now written to Lorne Crane, US assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, and Earl Wayne, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, urging them to establish a code of conduct for US Internet firms selling products abroad.
Yahoo! several years ago launched a Chinese version (http://cn.yahoo.com) of its Internet portal and announced in late June this year a new Chinese search-engine called Yisou. Yahoo China and Yisou censor search results as directed by the government.
Some combined key-word searches, such as "Free Tibet," do not display any results. For others, only official sites appear. The top results of a search for 'Falungong" produces only sites critical of the Chinese spiritual movement in line with the regime's position. The same search using a non-censored search-engine turns up material supporting Falungong and about the government's repression of its followers.
Google has so far refused to censor its search-engine and access to it was blocked for a week in September 2002 by the Chinese authorities, who are currently obliged to filter its search results by themselves, which is more difficult and less effective.
Google now seems to have changed tack. In June this year, it acquired a substantial share in one of China's biggest search-engines, Baidu, which carefully filters out all "subversive" content. When Google was blocked in 2002, Chinese Internet users were redirected to baidu.com. A search in Baidu for "Huang Qi," a cyber-dissident imprisoned for posting criticism of the government online, produced: "This document contains no data," even though hundreds of articles in Chinese have been posted about him.
A search for "independence Taiwan" shows only sites critical of the island's government, while Google's Chinese version (www.google.com/intl/zh-CN), which is not censored, comes up with pro-Taiwan sites.
Censorship of search-engines is a core issue for freedom of expression. The latest survey by the official China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) says 80% of Chinese Internet users get online data by using them. Access to some, such as Altavista, have already been blocked inside China.
Other US firms would also be directly concerned by a code of ethics. Cisco Systems has sold several thousand routers - costing more than 16,000 euros each - to enable the regime to build an online spying system and the firm's engineers have helped set it to spot "subversive" key-words in messages. The system also enables police to know who has looked at banned sites or sent "dangerous" e-mails.
The Global Internet Freedom Act, introduced in the US Congress by Rep. Christopher Cox and passed by the House of Representatives in July 2003, aims to combat online censorship imposed by repressive regimes such as China, Burma, Syria, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.
For more on Internet censorship in China, see "The Internet under Surveillance 2004" from Reporters Without Borders, on its website, www.internet.rsf.org. A total of 61 Internet users are currently in prison in China for posting online criticism of their government.