Rights group slams Yahoo over China pledge

Human rights activists in the U.S. alleged Friday that Yahoo Inc. has taken the side of Chinese government censors, and exceeded its legal obligations, by agreeing to limit access to online content banned in China after signing the Internet Society of China's Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry.

"The vague language of the pledge would appear to require Yahoo to identify and prevent the transmission of virtually any information that Chinese authorities or companies deem objectionable," wrote Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a letter dated July 30 to Yahoo Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Terry Semel.

"The pledge is an inappropriate commitment for an industry leader to undertake," it said.

A vocal critic of Chinese Internet policies and regulations, Human Rights Watch released a copy of the letter on August 9, saying in a statement that Yahoo executives had not responded to a request by the group to discuss the issue. A Yahoo spokeswoman in Hong Kong was not immediately available for comment.

Among the provisions contained in the pledge, Internet service providers agree under Article 9 to "monitor the information publicized by users on Web sites according to (Chinese) law and remove the harmful information promptly," and refrain from "establishing links to Web sites that contain harmful information so as to ensure that the content of the network information is lawful and healthy."

The provisions of the pledge do not apply only to Web sites in China, covering access to Web sites located outside of China as well. In Article 10, signatories to the pledge agree that, "Internet access service providers shall inspect and monitor the information on (Chinese) domestic and foreign Web sites that have been accessed and refuse access to those Web sites that disseminate harmful information in order to protect the Internet users of China from the adverse influence of the harmful information."

Companies like Yahoo are not legally required to sign the Internet Society of China pledge. However, the matter highlights the legal and cultural challenges that Internet companies face when operating across international boundaries and in multiple legal jurisdictions, each with their own laws that regulate access to the Internet and online content.

In line with Chinese laws, Yahoo appears to be making an effort to limit access from its mainland Chinese portal, http://www.yahoo.com.cn/, to Web sites containing content that is banned in China. A search conducted in Chinese for "falun dafa", the name for the method of exercise and meditation practiced by adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that is banned in China, at the site returned one link to a Hong Kong-based Web site maintained by Falun Gong members. That Web site could not be reached online at the time of writing.

The efforts to restrict access to sites banned in China are apparently not duplicated at Yahoo's U.S. Web site, http://www.yahoo.com/, where a search for the same keywords, also in Chinese, yielded 13,500 results. Chinese Internet users can freely access Yahoo's U.S. Web site and its search engine. While access to specific sites may be blocked by Internet service providers in China, Chinese users can theoretically access even those sites through the use of proxy servers located overseas.

This is not the first time that Yahoo has become caught up in a controversy related to freedom of expression online. The company has also been embroiled in an ongoing legal battle in France over access to Web sites that contain Nazi memorabilia.

In November 2000, a French court ordered Yahoo's U.S. subsidiary to take measures that would prevent local users from accessing Web sites that contained Nazi memorabilia. Yahoo took that decision to a U.S. court, arguing that French courts did not have jurisdiction over the company's U.S. subsidiary. In May, several rights organizations, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and Human Rights Watch, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Yahoo that argued the French court was seeking to curtail freedom of expression on the Internet.

The case against Yahoo does not involve the company's French subsidiary or its French Web site, which complied with French laws that make it illegal to exhibit or sell objects with racist overtones, John Morris, CDT staff counsel, said in May.

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