U.S. Congressman calls out tech firms on China ethics

U.S. Congressman Chris Smith said that top American technology companies were failing to prevent censorship and other human rights abuses in China

U.S. Congressman Chris Smith said that top American technology companies are failing to prevent censorship and other human rights abuses in China, writing Saturday in a letter to The Wall Street Journal.

"There is enormous profit potential, but entering the Chinese market means challenging a repressive regime on basic human rights tenets. Sadly, some of America's largest tech firms are currently failing this new test of corporate responsibility," wrote Smith, a Republican from New Jersey and a member of the Foreign Services Committee.

Smith said that representatives from Yahoo, Google, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft appeared at an April, 2006 Congressional hearing he convened and "they all acknowledged that their companies have enabled dictatorships to censor democracy and human rights promotion on the Internet." He also said that "Yahoo and Cisco have even helped the Chinese government incarcerate Internet users for pro-democracy activity."

Court documents and evidence from human rights groups have shown that Yahoo's Hong Kong subsidiary, Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong), cooperated with Chinese police in cases against journalist Shi Tao and political activist Li Zhi, and that material provided by the company may have led to their conviction. Shi was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, Li to eight years.

In January, Smith re-introduced "The Global Online Freedom Bill of 2007," would give individuals like Shi and Li the right to seek redress in U.S. courts, if they believe their freedom of expression was compromised by a U.S. company. Internet companies would be required to inform the Office of Global Internet Freedom -- to be created if the bill is signed into law -- of keywords and search parameters they are filtering. They must also notify the Office of any restrictions on Internet information access with which they must comply in order to do business in a foreign country.

Companies can be fined up to US$2 million for violation of these principles, with individuals liable for up to US$100,000. The bill provides for US$50 million to establish the Office of Global Internet Freedom.

The bill cited nine countries, including China, Iran, and North Korea, for blocking, restricting, and monitoring the Internet and its citizens' use of it, according to a January 8 statement from Smith's office.

Later in January, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Vodafone Group agreed to develop a code of conduct with a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to promote freedom of expression and privacy rights. The parties involved said that they would develop a framework that would hold signatories accountable for their actions in the areas of freedom of expression and privacy rights.

Eighteen NGOs are participating in the guidelines' development, including: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School; Business for Social Responsibility; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Human Rights Watch; and Reporters Without Borders.

One observer felt the tech firms were now between a rock and a hard place. "Technology companies now have the unenviable position of moving into the media realm, which is tightly controlled in China," said Danny Levinson, publisher of BDL Media Ltd.'s ChinaCSR.com and the China CSR monthly magazine.

"When dealing with corporate social responsibility in China, foreign technology companies are easier targets than firms in other sectors because they are much more high profile than, say, the mining companies providing poor labour oversight and textile companies polluting the environment," Levinson said.

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