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 Google.cn, its Chinese search engine. Meetings are underway with Chinese authorities to discuss removing filtering software from Google.cn 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

Crisis in Honduras…Obama and Chavez agree?

Unrest in Honduras flared today as protesters spared with police over the recent exile of President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya was ousted over the weekend by the Honduran military after disagreements among officials about a controversial constitutional referendum Zelaya had asked Hondurans to vote on last Sunday. The referendum would have changed the constitution to allow Zelaya an additional term as president — a move some have argued looks suspiciously close to the referendum Hugo Chavez proposed for Venezuela in 2007.

Amnesty International has issued a press release on the crisis arguing that President Zelaya must be allowed to return to Honduras immediately and safely. Amnesty also raised concerns about the safety of protesters and increased media censorship.

Interestingly, the Obama administration has tepidly stood on the side of leftist Zelaya — arguing that his exile was illegal and he should be reinstated to office immediately, a stance shared with Chavez. But as Paul Richter of the Los Angles Times points out, the U.S. has not gone so far as to remove its ambassadors from Honduras or declare the incident a coup d’etat.

However, I think Obama made a great statement today that shows some insight into U.S.-Latin American relations when he said, “The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies, but over the last several years I think both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have recognized that we always want to stand with democracy, even if the results don’t always mean that the leaders of those countries are favorable towards the United States.”

As AI stated in their press release, I hope that this crisis will get resolved quickly and peacefully but am ready to roll up my sleeves and start writing letters if the situation gets worse.

Iranian Protesters Stay One Step Ahead in the Cyber World

In the face of a tightening government grip on all things viral, Iranians have managed to circumvent the communication restrictions laid upon them to tell the world their story in ways previously thought to be reserved only for social networking. For anyone who has so much as glanced at the news during the past week, Twitter has been the name of the game for Iranian protesters.

With a limitation of 140 characters per post, only the most pertinent information is tweeted—rally locations, real-time updates, and details only those on the ground can see. While sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked off before, Iranians have continued to gain access to them via proxies, servers that allow users to access another site through them. Proxy sites are continuously being updated in an effort to stay one step ahead of the Iranian government’s filtering apparatus.

The Iranian government’s strategy for blocking the flow of information appears to be two-fold. Foreign news services have all been asked to leave (just this morning, the BBC reporter Jon Leyne, one of the few reporters left, was given a similar request) and the internet speed has been slowed to a snail’s pace. According to the Wall Street Journal, limiting bandwidth in this manner is meant to discourage and frustrate users so much that they’ll give up.

This strategy is, for now, not working. Iranians have harnessed the internet in ingenious ways—from their Twitter posts to uploaded YouTube videos. All major news networks have caught on to the phenomenon, allowing the messages coming out of Iran to truly reach the entire world.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

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

Act Now for Iran!

Iran has not seen a public demonstration of this size in 3 decades. After the results of Friday’s contested election, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in an act of defiance.

According to reports, as many as five students at Tehran University were shot dead over the weekend and another person was wounded when security agents opened fire on a demonstration. Motorcycle-mounted riot police have severely beaten large numbers of protesters with clubs and night sticks.

Authorities have done all they can to make sure this story doesn’t get out including blocking cell phones, text messaging, email and Web sites.

Let Iran know that the global community is monitoring their every move

Take action now!

(Trying Not to) Remember Tiananmen

© 1989 Hei Han Khiang

© 1989 Hei Han Khiang

It seems Chinese authorities were busy today. While people around the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the pro-democracy demonstrations and ensuing massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, police reportedly swarmed into the sqaure, in order to nip any potential protest in the bud. Numerous websites were blocked, including Twitter, Hotmail, and Flickr, along with many Chinese blogs and other sites. A former Tiananmen protester was sent on a government-sponsored “vacation” to keep him from carrying out a hunger strike.

Although the Chinese government seems to be doing all it can to help people forget about the people who died in the massacre, that didn’t stop 150,000 people from attending a vigil in Hong Kong, and it didn’t stop supporters in Washington, DC, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, from speaking out about human rights in China.

Regardless of what one thinks of the demands the protesters were making 20 years ago today, no one can deny that there was a massacre, and nothing can justify killing peaceful protesters. The country may have come a long way economically since 1989, but China’s human rights record still leaves a lot to be desired.

China Blocks YouTube, Google Plays Dumb

In case you haven’t heard, Google announced a few days ago that YouTube had been completely censored in China. According to the New York Times, “Google said it did not know why the site had been blocked…”

“We don’t know the reason for the block,” a Google spokesman, Scott Rubin, said. “Our government relations people are trying to resolve it.”

Give us a break, Scott.

It’s widely speculated that the Chinese government was less than happy about footage of Chinese soldiers beating Tibetans appearing on the site.

But this is old news. Really old news. China has been censoring the internet since it was introduced back in 1994. Web sites promoting democracy, human rights (including Amnesty International’s), and banned religions, such as Falung Gong, are restricted in China. Actually, pretty much any web site critical of the Chinese government is banned. 

Experts believe China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated and broad-reaching system of internet filtering in the world – “The Great Firewall of China.”

And the big web players, specifically Yahoo! and Google, have been acting as accomplices. Early in 2006, Google launched a self-censoring Chinese search engine, google.cn, that blocks search results for banned topics.

The freedom to information and expression is a human right. But apparently, profits come before people at Google.

Don’t play dumb, Google. Don’t be evil.

Why Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! need to be reined in

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Reporters without Borders (RWB) today issued its “Enemies of the Internet” report, exposing state censorship of free speech and expression around the world. Topping the group’s list were Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

While the United States is not on the list, RWB and Amnesty International earlier in the week highlighted the role of U.S. companies in internet censorship by calling on Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals, even if just for a day, on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship (today March 12th).

The call on the companies is a reminder that censorship does not just happen by states acting alone. The very companies that provide access to information on-line are actively participating in the restriction of such access.

So, what happens when U.S. companies adopt the censorship practices of other countries rather than export the ideals of free speech that are largely granted to users in their homeland?

There is a clear need for regulation. While the industry has begun attempts at self-regulation, they have made far too little progress in far too much time. Rep. Chris Smith has been vigilant in trying to pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would bring about transparency in state requests of U.S. firms to censor protected speech, and help the companies to refuse such requests, with the backing of the U.S. government.

To date, the companies have opposed the bill’s chances of becoming law.

If RWB and Amnesty’s call for one day of freedom from online censorship goes unheeded by the companies, it in itself will speak volumes — how can we expect them to make meaningful strides in their ongoing operations if they can’t even commit to a one-day, mostly a symbolic gesture?

If the U.S. doesn’t want to find itself on the “enemies” list one day, it needs to step in and regulate companies based in its soil that are essentially partners in the crackdown on free expression occurring across the world.

Internet Co's: How about one day without censorship?

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) yesterday called on U.S. Internet companies Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to give the world a day of censorship-free Internet search and blogging, in recognition of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, March 12.

In other words, we’re seeing if Internet companies are willing to give the world a free trial of freedom of expression. 

Like free trials of software downloads, the hope is that if these Internet mammoths can find it within themselves to stand up to censorship requests for just one day, they, we, the world, might like it enough to buy into the full version.

RWB and AI participated for months in an initiative, now known as the Global Network Initiative (GNI), with the companies to try to develop voluntary standards for the Internet and telecommunications industry on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. 

Both groups, to date, have refused to endorse the GNI, pointing to loopholes that could allow for continued abuses of privacy and free expression rights, such as what occurred with Chinese journalist Shi Tao. (Yahoo! handed over account information to Chinese authorities who used it to sentence Shi to a 10 year prison term for sending an email to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website.) 

If any of the companies take up the RWB-AIUSA challenge, much could be discovered about the true nature of the online censorship beast. The power of the symbolism, let alone bringing transparency to the problem could be just enough to change the lives of millions. It would be a sad state if none of the three can find a way to respect freedom of expression for one day.

Azerbaijan: Popular Website “Temporarily” Closed

First they came after dissenting newspapers such as Realni Azerbaijan. Then they came after foreign broadcasts such as BBC and Radio Free Europe. Now, just weeks before the March 18, 2009 constitutional referendum that would institute unlimited presidency, the government of Azerbaijan is allegedly censoring the content of a popular and semi-independent website, www.day.az. In the words of Global Voices Online:

“[…] the content of a leading news site considered more independent than most in Azerbaijan was replaced on Thursday with a message informing readers that the “project is closed.

A day later, after the authorities denied allegations that they were behind the disappearance of day.az, a new message instead explained that the site was down for technical reasons and would reappear after 25 February.

Blogs by media specialists and analysts in Azerbaijan, however, were not convinced.”

Given that the “temporary” closure of Day.az was done without a court order – unlike in the case of other media restrictions in Azerbaijan – it has been assumed that the website will reopen with censored content.

The mainly Russian-language Day.az has been a valuable source of information about Azerbaijan and the region. In addition to original reporting, the website has been republishing information from a variety of regional sources, even posting full PanArmenian.net articles from neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are technically at war, although the 1994 ceasefire blocked full-scale clashes, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition to the news section, the website has been offering a popular forum. One of the most popular online portals in the entire former Soviet Union, the Russian-language forum at Day.az has had thousands of active users. One of the hottest sections of the forum has been “Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

In November 2004, as a Russian-language Armenian forum user reported at the time, the administration of the Day.az forum promoted its first Armenian moderator, Arthur, giving him the privilege to delete/edit offensive and/or unrelated content from discussions.

The appointment was indeed unprecedented, as the Russian-language announcement from the Day.az forum administrator explained:

“For the first time in the virtual world, a user of Armenian nationality – the respected Arthur – has become the Moderator of an Azerbaijani forum.

We should note that we came to [this decision] after a long year… of surveys, nominees, consultations with other Moderators… and taking into account the opinions of well-respected users. […] It shows also high level of the Armenian users, and atmosphere of tolerance which has developed at this forum.

[…]

P.S. And now you can throw stones at me.”

Another, more recent, controversial move at the forum has been the creation of a private section where users with over 500 posts could discuss and post adult content.

What will be different on Day.az if it reopens on February 25, 2009?

By: Simon Maghakyan, Eurasia Country Specialist