Google, Actions speak louder than words

Google made an unprecedented announcement this week by claiming it is no longer willing to continue censoring search results on, its Chinese search engine. Meetings are underway with Chinese authorities to discuss removing filtering software from and, the company further claims, if an acceptable agreement is not reached, Google may shut the search engine down.

Some in the media and some human rights advocates are heralding this announcement as a turning point in corporate America’s relations with China, given that Google attributes their sudden opposition to censorship is the result of a security breach of two Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists.

But as Tom Foremski rightly points out over at ZDNET, a leading IT publication:

The question remains is why now? Google could have taken a stand on human rights in China on many occasions in the past.

Many Internet companies operating in China, including Google, have previously complied with the Chinese government’s censorship requirements. And this isn’t the first time that Chinese human rights defenders have been the targeted through their email accounts. Yahoo! handed over Shi Tao’s personal email records to Chinese authorities in 2004 which led to a 10 year prison sentence. He was targeted because of his effort to expose government-endorsed media censorship over the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen. More recently, the Chinese government blocked Twitter, Flickr, and Hotmail prior to the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen in June and attempted to mandate that all PC makers such as Hewlett Packard and Dell install software that filters Internet content.

Foremski also cites a Twitter feed from Guardian reporter Bobbie Johnson – who hits the nail on the head:

Goog [sic] acted after its rights were infringed, not the rights of its users.

That’s why AIUSA pulled out of the Global Network Initiative – a multi-stakeholder initiative – we joined in 2007, with the goal of establishing voluntary principles to promote and respect human rights on the Internet. We saw no tangible results.

We certainly welcome Google’s statements, but actions speak louder than words. And this is the internet company’s opportunity to be a leader. Google should stand with human rights defenders and support the Global Online Freedom Act (H.R. 2271) which could help IT companies resist information requests by the Chinese government.

By Tony Cruz and Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Exploitation in the DRC fuels mining trade: Apple, Dell look the other way

Prominent US and multinational companies such as Apple, Dell, Motorola, Nokia, and Hewlett-Packard are among the businesses pinpointed as culprits in an unflinching, new report released by Global Witness that details the often noxious connections between the illegal mining trade, widespread human rights abuses and tech and mining firms.

The detailed analysis provides excellent current background on the situation, and names the names of companies operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that trade in minerals in ways that ignore corporate social responsibility and perpetuate the conflict.

High-tech human rights abuses

The illegal mining and horrific human rights abuses against civilians – including the use of child soldiers and sexual violence as a weapon of war – have previously prompted a UN Expert Panel review that resulted in a large number of companies reforming their activities or leaving the country.  Yet the new Global Witness report is clear: “no effective action has been taken to stop this murderous trade.” Global Witness states that it is not calling for a complete trade embargo or targeting artisanal mining per se, but is focusing on stopping the mining intertwined with conflict and abuse.

In many ways, the DRC’s plight hearkens back to colonialism and chartered companies empowered to make war in order to capture resources.  But today’s neo-colonialism is more indirect and up-to-date, being linked to some of the world’s most sophisticated new technologies.  The minerals cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan are important components in cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices, and the DRC is a primary global source.

Violations in the region have continued despite the recent rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda and the integration into the Congolese army of one of the leading rebel groups (the Congrès national pour la défense du people, or CNDP, whose leader Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court).  Both the army and remaining rebel groups such as the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) are implicated in the illegal mining and abuses – even cooperating at times with each other as well as with the companies to share the spoils.  Rule of law in the DRC is either weak or, in many provinces, effectively absent.

The new report states that the named companies exploiting this lack of oversight had almost no controls or due diligence processes to ensure that their supply chain contained no conflict minerals.

Global brands such as many of these companies  participate in industry initiatives including the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct which require them to hold suppliers to high standards.  Yet “suppliers” has often been interpreted to apply to middlemen but not suppliers further down the supply chain.

Apple’s stance leaves much to be desired

When questioned about these specific practices and their obligations to uphold certain standards, companies generally pointed to generic corporate social responsibility statements.  Only in rare cases did companies seem to recognize the need for greater due diligence.  In most cases, no sense of urgency or clear commitment to applying checks to the entire supply chain was expressed.  Instead, companies relied frequently on the fact that they purchased from licensed exporters.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, Global Witness Director Patrick Alley stated:

It is not good enough for companies to say they buy only from licensed exporters, when they know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups. The failure of governments to hold companies to account, of Burundi and Rwanda to restrict the trade across their borders, and of donors and diplomats to address explicitly the role of the mineral trade, have all contributed to the continuation of a conflict that has killed millions and displaced many more.

Apple’s response was a bare bones reference to its supplier responsibility policy (via a web link that no longer works).  Nokia, at least, gave the more commendable explanation that while it purchases raw materials through suppliers rather than directly, this “does not change the fact that we have the responsibility over everything that goes into making a Nokia product.”

Hewlett-Packard has room for improvement

Hewlett-Packard’s response shows similar progress in understanding the issue, with the company explaining that it has focused on first-tier suppliers where it thinks it “has the most influence” (an assumption that may be questioned when the underlying harms and their locations are considered).  But HP has successfully reached down to many second-tier suppliers as well, via its first tier suppliers (who have told HP that DRC coltan is “not used in their products supplied to HP”).  HP presumably does not merely accept such assertions (which would be akin to the U.S. government accepting diplomatic assurances that the countries to whom it sends terror suspects “do not torture”), but audits them to some extent.  And HP has the reputation of being better than most companies at such audit processes, stating that it is working with the first-tier suppliers of notebook computers to “map their supply chain down to the extractives level.”

Lukewarm responses Motorola and Dell

The responses from Motorola and Dell were in-between the extremes represented by the nonchalant reply from Apple, on the one hand, and the more detailed and responsive replies from Nokia and HP, on the other.  Motorola and Dell stated that they require high standards in their supply chains, expect their suppliers to do the same, and participate in industry initiatives to that end.

Moving toward real social corporate responsibility

Laudable industry initiatives such as the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) do aim to enhance traceability of minerals beyond supplier certifications to the actual mines involved, but thus far have failed to change what Nokia rightly calls a status quo that is “not  . . . acceptable.”

The continued corporate role in this conflict remains shameful and underappreciated but fundamental.  The new Global Witness report usefully reawakens slumbering attention, and clearly demonstrates the need for strengthened accountability mechanisms that truly end what the report calls “the impunity protecting those engaged in illicit mineral exploitation and trade.”

In addition to illustrating the grave risks faced by the extractive industry and companies active in conflict situations, the new report provides sensible recommendations for direly needed urgent actions by governments, corporations, individuals, the UN, and the international community at large to finally call a halt to the ongoing tragedy in the DRC.

Chip Pitts is a lecturer at Stanford Law School, former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia Inc., and former Chair of Amnesty International USA.  He is the co-author and editor of the new book, Corporate Accountability: A Legal Analysis (Lexis Nexis 2009); all the royalties from book sales will benefit human rights and sustainability charities.

China Mandates PC Companies Install Software That Censors

By Tony Cruz, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Starting July 1, 2009, the Chinese government is mandating all PC makers such as Hewlett Packard and Dell install software that filters Internet content.  The government says it is to help give parents control over inappropriate material, such as pornography, but Business Week reports that the software blocks political and religious websites. And after the government of China’s recent internet crackdown on the 20th anniversary of Tienanmen Square earlier this month, and the widely known controversial self-censorship of companies such as Yahoo and Google, it is clear that the Chinese government continues to use technology to suppress freedom of expression.

For the last three years, I’ve represented Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) at Yahoo! and Google’s shareholder meetings addressing their decisions to self-censor. I’ve asked executives to support freedom of expression on the Internet through such legislation as the Global Online Freedom Act (H.R. 275) which could help IT companies resist information requests by the Chinese government.

Imagine this scenario: if Yahoo! and Google backed this legislation three years ago, the choice facing HP and Dell today would be an easy one — respect human rights or go to jail. But they have not taken concrete steps to rectify their decision to self-censor, a decision that even Google co-founder Sergei Brin calls a “mistake”. In fact, AIUSA recently pulled out of the multi-stakeholder initiative we joined in 2007, with the goal of establishing voluntary principles to promote and respect human rights on the Internet, because we saw no tangible results.

This week we’re able to see in real-time how critical the Internet is for Iranians as a forum for protest and communication. In China, the Internet is equally vital in voicing dissent and discussing justice and rights. If PC companies cave into the Chinese government’s demands to install software that filters internet content, then it could be the next step towards stifling this budding online democratic movement towards accountability, transparency, citizens’ right to participate.

So what’s next for PC companies? Will they be pioneers in socially responsible business practices or will they bend to the Great Firewall of China?

Join us in defending online freedom in China by taking this simple action.

With contributions from Anna Phelan (BERG) and Lillian Tan, Corporate Action Network Intern