Internet Guidelines Leave Many Questions

A new Internet code of conduct leaves many questions unanswered.
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A Reporters Without Borders Chinese language website blocked in Beijing, 30 May 2007.
A Reporters Without Borders Chinese language website blocked in Beijing, 30 May 2007.

WASHINGTON—Internet watchdogs say a new code of conduct for businesses operating in countries that restrict free speech leaves many questions unanswered.

"The biggest challenges facing the operation of these guidelines will come from China," said Xiao Qiang, editor of China Digital Times and director of the UC-Berkeley China Internet project, which researches how the Internet affects China’s media and politics. "We will have to see how China will respond to it."

Xiao called the initiative, developed by Internet giants Yahoo Inc., Google Inc., and Microsoft Corp., a positive step in guiding U.S. and international Internet companies.

But he added that business practices in countries with strong censorship would likely remain unchanged. "The major U.S. companies such as Yahoo and Google can use these guidelines to reduce criticism from the public and the media," he said.

Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Yahoo Inc., working together as the Global Network Initiative (GNI), this week announced global guidelines to guide their business in nations such as China that restrict free speech and expression.

Pedestrians walk past a Yahoo advertisement displayed on a sightseeing bus in central Beijing, 14 June 2007. Photo: AFP
Pedestrians walk past a Yahoo advertisement displayed on a sightseeing bus in central Beijing, 14 June 2007. AFP
Drafted with human rights groups, the guidelines provide companies with a framework for better protecting netizens. Companies are advised on how to train employees and take action in court to challenge government restrictions.

They would have companies evaluate government requests for user information or censorship and to reduce support for these requests.

Participants have also pledged to provide greater transparency, better assess human rights risks when entering new markets, and institute employee training and oversight programs.

Key points taken from the guidelines:

  • Companies will seek to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression.
  • Companies will employ protections of personal information in all countries where they operate in order to protect privacy rights of users.
  • A company’s board and officers are responsible for decisions that affect freedom of expression and privacy and are fully informed of the principles.
  • Participants will take a collaborative approach to problem solving and explore ways in which collective learning from multiple stakeholders can advance freedom of expression and privacy.
  • Participants will adhere to governance that defines the responsibilities of participants, ensures accountability and promotes the advancement of these principles.
  • Participants will be assessed on their progress implementing these principles after two years and annually thereafter.
  • Human rights impact assessments will be updated over time, such as when there are material changes to laws, regulations, markets, products, technologies, or services.

The full guidelines can be found here

‘Much to be done’

Ronald Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies, called the initiative an important step toward acknowledging the importance of human rights online "where human rights are not always accorded the respect they deserve."

"At the same time, there is much work to be done and some important questions [have been] left unanswered," said Diebert, whose work focuses on the connection between digital media and politics.

"Policies and statements matter only insofar as they are properly enforced and parties to them held accountable."

"There is still an open-ended question as to how that process of due diligence will unfold. It is imperative that mechanisms of accountability and proper oversight from independent third parties be built into the Global Network Initiative."

Collaborative effort

GNI was developed in collaboration with organizations including Human Rights First, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and Human Rights in China.

Other advisors included the Center for Democracy and Technology, Business for Social Responsibility, and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said the initiative "creates a mechanism for companies to assess and manage human rights risk before the government comes knocking at the door."

It will "build the capacity on the part of companies to fuse business decisions with human rights analysis," she said.

Fails to provide guidance

A screenshot of search results generated by Google China on Oct. 30, 2008. RFA
A screenshot of search results generated by Google China on Oct. 30, 2008.RFA RFA
But one human rights group that refused to contribute said the code "fails to provide sufficient guidance on how specific issues should be handled, does not cover many aspects of U.S. companies’ Internet operations abroad, and lacks specific mechanisms for ensuring that these guidelines will be followed."

The World Organization for Human Rights USA said this lack of guidance was particularly troubling as all three companies have previously been brought before Congress for their part in enabling the Chinese government to censor and monitor its netizens.

China has a wide-ranging and sophisticated system of surveillance and control that it uses to direct exactly what news its netizens may access.

The government blocks many sites that deal with information it considers sensitive, and those who attempt to work around these measures are often dealt with harshly.

E-mails Yahoo turned over to Beijing last year led to the arrest and imprisonment of a journalist and two political activists, while Google has drawn ire for censoring its search results in China.

Microsoft blocked the blog of a Chinese media researcher after he complained about a management reshuffle at the Beijing News.

"As written, the Code would not prevent these types of abuses from happening again," the World Organization for Human Rights USA said in a statement.

Profit above morality

Drew Liu, a China Internet analyst who blogs for RFA, said the Internet companies need to make a more serious effort to define their intentions. Until they do, he said, moves like these will only be a quick-fix for a larger problem.

"For the most part the companies put profit above morality…on the one hand the Chinese government is squeezing them very hard, but on the other hand the whole world is upset with their policy. They are trying to mediate their dilemma rather than see this as a black and white situation," Liu said.

"Without freedom of information and freedom of the press, the Internet won’t be there in the first place, and their [the companies’] continued prosperity and progress depend on this," he said.

Original reporting by Joshua Lipes in Washington and RFA’s broadcast services. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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