Monday, July 31, 2006

Internet freedom in China under attack…again

‘[…] the information society’s very life blood is freedom. It is freedom that enables citizens everywhere to benefit from knowledge, journalists to do their essential work, and citizens to hold government accountable. Without openness, without the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, the information revolution will stall, and the information society we hope to build will be stillborn.’
Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General

Why are freedoms of expression and information important? Because knowledge determines the way we see the world. Granted there are many truths out there, and nobody holds the absolute truth, but in authoritarian regimes like China truth is twisted by the government as a means of political control and manipulation. Without access to free information and to the ability to receive and dissipate free information, society is dictated by what the political few want the masses to believe and think. And that is a danger, not just to the society which feeds on disinformation, but to the world at large, as it hinders free debate and creates misunderstanding.

How serious is the threat of the Chinese regime to freedom of press?

“Any government has the right to look after national security. But in China, national security is used as a catchall category that allows the authorities to imprison people whom they perceive as a threat less to the national interest but to the interests of the Chinese Communist Party. For the party, these are the same thing. By any reasonable measure, they are not.” China’s freedom test

Why is the world at large not the least concerned and still pouring money into China? Most suffer from the delusions of ‘market-driven-liberalism’: the idea that growing prosperity will eventually force a regime and society to open up and embrace greater social and political freedoms. China is the exception which confirms this rule.

“[…]the world's attitude to China's authoritarian regime differs markedly to that of say, apartheid South Africa in the past. The democratic world's approach to China over the past ten years has been one of economic engagement. Never mind an appalling human rights record and a rate of growth that puts the future of the climate in further jeopardy; send in the global businesses, goes the reasoning, and the economic freedoms they bring will be a democratising force.” Amnesty's China hit-list

And with the prevalence of the internet, you might think that there will be more direct flows and exchanges of information. But this is far from reality. The internet as a forum can be monitored, filtered and controlled just as easily as any other medium. Introducing: the Great Chinese Firewall—an elaborate system of cyber police, undercover forum moderators, government-backed bloggers and net-surfers, as well as complicit soft- and hardware companies. This statement from Amnesty International confirms this observation:

“[…] the apparatus of Internet repression is considered to be more advanced in China than in any other country, and in part because of the willingness of Internet hardware and software companies to cooperate with the Chinese government in their quest to develop a large and lucrative market.”

Amnesty International just published a report as part of its on-line campaign against internet suppression. The report, titled Undermining freedom of expression in China, outlines the active role that the Big Three internet companies (Yahoo, Google and Microsoft) are playing in helping the Chinese government to suppress internet freedom. Google for example willingly submitted itself to censorship of ‘sensitive’ topics in its China-based search engine.

“All three companies have, in one way or another, facilitated or colluded in the practice of censorship in China. Yahoo! has provided the Chinese authorities with private and confidential information about its users. This included personal data that has been used to convict at least two journalists, considered by Amnesty International to be prisoners of conscience. Microsoft has admitted to shutting down a blog on the basis of a government request. Google has launched a censored version of its international search engine in China.”

These are alarming behaviours by such global companies with so much influence on the flow of information. Even more alarming is that their collaboration with the Chinese government are in contradiction of their self-proclaimed values in defending freedom of expression.

“All three companies have demonstrated a disregard for their own internally driven and proclaimed policies. They have made promises to themselves, their employees, their customers and their investors which they failed to uphold in the face of business opportunities and pressure from the Chinese government. This raises doubts about which statements made by these organisations can be trusted and which ones are public relations gestures.”

In addition, these companies are outlandishly defying the UN Global Compact—a set of ethical business principles which outline that multinational corporations should in the conduct of their businesses—whether in the production or merchandising of their services and goods— pay regard to internationally recognised principles, amongst other, human rights and fundamental freedoms:

Principle 1

Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights within their sphere of influence.

Principle 2

Businesses should ensure that their own operations are not complicit in human rights abuses.

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