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