Major U.S.-based Internet companies Yahoo! and Google, which have seen rising profits this year, are competing in a fast-growing Chinese market that limits the right of Chinese Internet users to freedom of information. As RFA's Mandarin service reports, a Paris-based rights group blasts the search engines for capitulating to Chinese censorship.
Just as top executives at Yahoo! are making millions of dollars in personal fortunes by cashing in their stock options, and Google is preparing its first major share offering in the United States, a Paris-based rights group has called for a code of conduct to prevent U.S. companies from capitulating to the demands of authoritarian governments by filtering their search engines.
"(The U.S.) places no restrictions on private-sector activity even when firms work with some of the world's most repressive regimes."
"The U.S. 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 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom group said in recent letters to two top U.S. 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," RSF said.
Yahoo! has censored its China search engine for many years, according to RSF. A search for "Radio Free Asia" on Yahoo! China yielded an error message, as did a search for "Taiwan Independence". "BBC", on the other hand, offered a selection of corporate, rather than news, Web pages.
"Yahoo is required to operate within each of the regulatory environments where it has operations and does business"
Similar searches on Google's China site brought up links to all such material, although Google's China partner Baidu is far more strictly filtered.
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 said.
Earlier this week, Semel exercised one million stock options in Yahoo!, increasing his personal fortune by U.S.$21 million, according to documents filed Thursday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
RSF also slammed competitor Google – ; whose August initial public offering (IPO) on the Nasdaq exchange is expected to reap up to U.S.$36 billion – ; for taking a stake in censored Chinese search engine Baidu. Users were directed to Baidu when the government blocked the Chinese version of Google in 2001.
"Yahoo is required to operate within each of the regulatory environments where it has operations and does business," Yahoo! international affairs spokesman Scott Morris said when contacted by RFA for a response.
Meanwhile, sources in Washington doubted whether any formal sanctions could be put in place to prevent companies from limiting freedom of expression in order to maximize profits, without risking charges of censorship themselves.
"The kind of regulation that would allow you to come after these guys for what they're doing could also be used to silence them, could be used to impinge on their freedom of expression," a lawyer with a Congressionally mandated organization told RFA.
"China's law in this area is very vague and open to interpretation. Yahoo has apparently chosen to interpret China's laws in a more conservative fashion," he said.
He said that even the proposed U.S. Global Internet Freedom Act – ; which passed only in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, and was never signed into law – ; would not have required Internet companies to change their behavior. Instead it aimed to provide more tools for those under authoritarian regimes to access free search engines outside their own countries.
China estimates it will have 100 million Internet users by the end of 2004. A total of 61 Internet users are currently in prison in China for posting online criticism of their government, according to a 2004 report on government surveillance of the Internet published recently by RSF.
China has kept a tight hold on Internet use by its citizens for fear that critics could organize themselves into an effective opposition and disseminate their views to China's fast-growing population of cyber-surfers.
Government filters block access to Web sites abroad run by dissidents, human rights groups, and some news organizations. The content of domestic sites is monitored and sometimes censored.
Banned Web sites also include those offering pornography and those belonging to banned organizations such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement.