American tech companies seeking access to China’s domestic market must not turn a blind eye to the country’s severe internet-related human rights abuses, Amnesty International said ahead of a meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and top U.S. tech firms on Wednesday.
Senior executives from Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft are expected to attend the U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum in Seattle, which is part of President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the U.S.
“U.S. tech firms need to put people and principles before profit, and defend internet freedom. They must not turn a blind eye to China’s online repression in order to gain access to the lucrative Chinese market,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.
“If U.S. tech firms get into bed with the Chinese government, they may end up being complicit in the imprisonment of people who are solely exercising their right to free expression online.”
China’s internet model severely restricts freedom of expression online. Since President Xi came to power, hundreds of people have been detained solely for expressing their views online.
The authorities continue to use criminal law to unjustifiably restrict freedom of expression and the right to privacy, including by detaining and imprisoning activists for online posts that fall foul of state censors.
A proposed new cyber security law would only exacerbate China’s already strict internet surveillance and censorship. The law would require service providers to store all personal data within China, and turn it over to the authorities without any independent oversight, to preserve “cyberspace sovereignty.”
According to the New York Times, the Chinese authorities recently wrote to major U.S. tech firms asking them to pledge their commitment to such practices.
“Internet freedom is under attack across the world. On Wednesday, major tech firms need to unequivocally reject China’s concept of cyberspace sovereignty and refuse to handover data to the Chinese authorities if they don’t want to be complicit in the crackdown,” said William Nee.
The meeting falls on the first anniversary of the sentencing of Uighur academic Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment on the baseless charge of “separatism.” Ilham Tohti – whom Amnesty International considers a prisoner of conscience – founded the website Uighur Online, and articles on the website were used as evidence against him at his unfair trial.
Thousands of websites remain blocked in China, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Major international news sites such as the BBC and New York Times are also banned. Scores of phrases are censored on social media including any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Governments across the globe are increasingly using technology to crack down on freedom of expression, censor information on human rights violations and carry out indiscriminate mass surveillance in the name of security, often in collaboration with corporations.
The U.S. and UK governments have undermined online freedoms with the indiscriminate mass surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) which are invading privacy globally.
Companies based in western countries such as the UK, Germany and Italy are exporting software that allows governments to access the computers of human rights activists, bloggers and journalists and could lead to the persecution of individuals targeted.