Amnesty blasts Google, Yahoo, Microsoft

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have undermined the rights of Chinese to freedom of expression through their actions in China, Amnesty International said in a report.

"All three companies have, in one way or another, facilitated or colluded in the practice of censorship in China," Amnesty said in the report, noting these actions contradict the companies' stated values. The full report, entitled "Undermining freedom of expression in China," is available online at: http://irrepressible.info/static/pdf/FOE-in-china-2006-lores.pdf.

This is not the first time that Amnesty has criticized the business practices of these three companies. Yahoo has taken heat for handing over user information that helped Chinese authorities identify and jail dissidents, including Shi Tao, a journalist imprisoned in 2005 for 10 years.

Microsoft and Google have also faced criticism from Amnesty and other human rights group. Microsoft shut down a blog on its MSN Spaces Web site following a request from the Chinese government and Google introduced a censored version of its search engine specifically designed for China.

Amnesty applauded Google's admission that its actions in China were at odds with its stated corporate mantra of "don't be evil," saying this was a first step. Google can go further by being more transparent about its censorship of search results in China, it said.

Google currently discloses to Chinese users when information has been removed from its search results in response to local laws, the company said in a statement made in response to the report. That provides some transparency and "is a step in the right direction," Google said.

Also, Google doesn't offer services like blogging or e-mail in China because it can't guarantee the privacy of customers using such offerings, the company said.

Google.cn, the censored version of the search engine, will provide benefits to Chinese Internet users and Google's offerings in China meaningfully expand access to information there, Google said.

Yahoo, which has since handed over its Chinese operations to Alibaba.com, was singled out for the harshest criticism. "Yahoo actions have, in particular, assisted the suppression of dissent with severe consequences for those affected," the report said.

In a statement, Yahoo did not specifically address Amnesty's charges, but said it is pursuing "a number of initiatives" to preserve "the open availability of the Internet around the world." However, Yahoo will continue to follow the local laws of the countries in which it has a presence, even if those countries restrict freedom of expression, it said.

"We believe we can make more of a difference by having even a limited presence and growing our influence, than we can by not operating in a particular country at all," the company said.

Microsoft also said in a statement that it would continue to comply with the local laws of the markets in which it does business. However, the company acknowledged that doing so in countries that do not allow their citizens to have free access to information is a "complex and difficult issue."

Amnesty called on all three companies to take several measures, aimed at ensuring better freedom of expression in China. Those measures include making public all agreements with the Chinese government that related to the censorship of information. In addition, the group called on them to make public the list of words that are censored by content filters.

(Nancy Gohring in Dublin and Elizabeth Montalbano in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

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