Tech firms must reject the Chinese authorities’ efforts to influence global internet governance in ways that would curb freedom of expression and exacerbate human rights abuses, Amnesty International said ahead of China hosting a major internet summit.
President Xi Jinping is expected to address senior executives of global tech firms attending the three-day World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, eastern China, which starts on Wednesday.
The Chinese government runs one of the world’s most repressive internet censorship regimes. The authorities continue to use vaguely-worded laws to arbitrarily target individuals for solely exercising their right to freedom of expression online. Since President Xi Jinping came to power, hundreds of people have been detained solely for expressing their views online.
“Under the guise of sovereignty and security, the Chinese authorities are trying to rewrite the rules of the internet so censorship and surveillance become the norm everywhere. This is an all-out assault on internet freedoms,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International.
“Tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft, must be prepared to say no to China’s repressive internet regime and put people and principles before profits.”
Since 2014, the Chinese government has increasingly promoted its notion of “internet sovereignty” for global internet governance.
The authorities have twice attempted to elicit written pledges from global internet companies. At the inaugural Wuzhen Internet Conference in November 2014, the authorities’ efforts to get companies to sign a declaration which called on the international community to “respect the internet sovereignty of all countries” ended in failure.
In September this year, the Chinese government tried again to secure written pledges from US tech firms ahead of President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington. The pledge committed the signatories to ensuring that they would not “harm China’s national security”, that companies would store Chinese users’ data within China, and that they would “accept supervision of all parts of society”. Such wording would support the Chinese government’s position that it should have unchecked powers to access the operations and information collected by tech companies.
Despite the repressive actions of the Chinese government, technology companies have an independent responsibility to respect international human rights, including the right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom from unlawful detention. This means that they must ask questions and put measures in place to ensure that they do not contribute to human rights violations.
“The impact of China’s “internet sovereignty” is real and devastating. It is women’s rights activists, anti-corruption campaigners and those urging debate on political reforms who are silenced, and facing the threat of long prison sentences for falling foul of the authorities’ online-censorship,” said Roseann Rife.
“Tech companies must not turn a blind eye to such repression or give credence to any notion of internet sovereignty that is an attack on the rights to freedom of expression or privacy.”
On Monday, the trial of lawyer Pu Zhiqianq took place in Beijing. The renowned human rights lawyer faces up to eight years in prison on the charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and “inciting ethnic hatred”, primarily on the basis of seven social media posts, in total around 600 characters, in which he criticized the government.
Thousands of websites remain blocked in China, including social media services like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Scores of phrases are censored on social media and in internet search results including any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Lu Wei, China’s internet czar has defended the controls, describing them as necessary to maintain order.
A proposed new cyber security law would only exacerbate China’s already strict internet censorship and extensive surveillance. The law, together with provisions in other laws such as the Anti-Terrorism Law, would require service providers to store all personal data within China, and turn it over to the authorities without any judicial authorization or independent oversight, to preserve “internet sovereignty”.
In November 2014, seven people were detained for demonstrating outside the first World Internet Summit in Wuzhen. The protesters had called on the Chinese authorities to allow access to banned websites.
Governments across the globe are increasingly using technology to crackdown on freedom of expression, censor information on human rights violations and corruption, and to carry out indiscriminate mass surveillance in the name of security, often in collaboration with corporate actors.
The US and UK governments have undermined online freedoms globally with the indiscriminate mass surveillance programmes run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which are violating the right to privacy on a global scale. The US and UK governments’ ubiquitous surveillance programmes and their continuing refusal to meaningfully reform them have set a dangerous precedent for other countries.
Internet companies have a responsibility to respect international human rights in their global operations. This entails putting pro-active measures in place so that serious human rights abuses can be avoided. A law requiring companies to store and share private information with the Chinese authorities without sufficient safeguards and adequate oversight would require them to act contrary to their responsibility to respect human rights – companies should challenge such measures in order to respect freedom of expression and related rights. They should not voluntarily and uncritically disclose private information because of the serious implications that this would have.