International tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft, and LinkedIn have been warned that they will have to comply with China's draconian new surveillance rules if they operate inside the system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall.
Citing a new Cybersecurity Law passed by Beijing last week, the London-based rights group Amnesty International said any tech company operating inside China will have to become a tool of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"It is a vast human and technological system of Internet censorship without parallel in the world," Amnesty's East Asia research director Roseann Rife wrote in an article on the group's website as the World Internet Conference started in Wuzhen, in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
"The new law codifies existing abusive practices and seeks to turn tech companies operating in China into de-facto state surveillance agents," Rife said.
Rife said that while the Chinese market is currently dominated by homegrown tech giants like Tencent and Sina, Chinese officials have already made it clear that foreign internet companies will have to toe the line if they seek access to the country's internet users.
Under the Cybersecurity Law, internet service providers will be forced to pass on huge amounts of data, including personal information, to government, and to censor users’ posts without regard for freedom of expression and the right to privacy, she wrote. Those who fail to comply will be hit with substantial penalties.
Rife cited the detention of bloggers Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu on the implausible charges of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" as an example of how internet users can be criminalized simply for compiling and posting publicly available data.
Under the new law, internet companies are required to remove and report to authorities any content likely to be regarded as politically sensitive or problematic by the government.
This would effectively target people whose activities had not yet attracted the attention of China's "stability maintenance" regime, she wrote.
"It is an Orwellian vision of the internet, a dragnet to trap those the government views as troublemakers, where the right to freedom of expression exists only at the discretion of the censors," Rife said.
"Technology companies ... should challenge the new law and make known to the government the company’s principled opposition to implementing any requests or directives which violate fundamental human rights." she said, calling on companies not to sign up to China's conditions under the new law.
The warning came as veteran political journalist Gao Yu reported via social media that browsers in China are now displaying warning notices that the user may be trying to access a "fraudulent website" whenever they try to access overseas news organizations and other websites blocked by the Great Firewall.
Chinese internet entrepreneur Hao Peiqiang, who founded Chengdu-based Ginkgo Software Technologies, said the Chinese government has been gradually tightening its control over the country's internet users under a strategy that is coming from the very highest level of government.
"Domestic browsers basically decide what a website is, and then it is what they say it is," Hao said, adding: "They're not very reliable."
Impact on rights
Amnesty International China researcher Patrick Poon said overseas tech firms are overlooking the human rights implications of carrying out their business in China.
"Actually they haven't thought about the fact that they are helping the Chinese government to suppress the freedom of expression of its citizens," Poon said. "We will continue to call on internet companies to pay particular attention to the right of freedom of expression and the right to privacy."
He said the law stems from President Xi Jinping's concept of "internet sovereignty" in which a country controls what its nationals do online, rather than accessing a global network of information and services.
"There is a double standard here, in which there is no room for human rights, where international norms on human rights will not be applied," Poon said.
U.S.-based rights activist Liu Qing welcomed Amnesty International's warning. "This is both fair and correct," Liu said. "There are quite a few Western tech companies who are willing to do as the Chinese Communist Party tells them in order to advance their interests in China."
"But since Xi Jinping came to power, there has been a steady rise in online surveillance and control of information."
Liu said companies that do toe the line to do business in China are unlikely to benefit greatly from the trade-off, however.
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.