Falling Short: Writing (Ethical Code)

Writing (Ethical Code)

U.S. Internet companies, eager to take advantage of China’s huge market, have been caught up in the state’s repressive machinery.

With double-digit economic growth and more than 130 million people online, China is a market that makes U.S. Internet companies salivate. But the political cost at home of grabbing a slice of the action overseas has curbed the appetite, if only temporarily, of California’s digital giants.

Yahoo was the first to feel the blast of domestic outrage after Chinese journalist Shi Tao was jailed thanks to e-mail account information supplied by the U.S. company. Microsoft was then hauled over the coals for taking down the blog of another outspoken journalist, Zhao Jing. Finally, Google was criticized for removing results from its Chinese search engine that could offend the authorities in Beijing.

The public relations fallout, together with the threat of Congressional legislation to control their business practices in foreign markets, prompted the companies to act. Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, and the U.K.- based communications firm Vodafone agreed to embark on a search for a voluntary code of principles to govern behavior in countries such as China and Vietnam, where Internet censorship is rampant.

Last year, the companies began meeting privately with nongovernmental organizations and human rights groups, socially responsible investment funds, and international legal experts. The aim was to draw up a code of conduct for technology companies in the spirit of the Sullivan Principles, which set socially responsible goals for companies in the 1970s at the height of international economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

CPJ joined the group in November 2006 and urged it to go public with its work. It did so in January 2007, although details of the discussions remain confidential. The forum has been organized by Business for Social Responsibility, a San Francisco-based association of leading corporations, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit public policy institution in Washington.

The companies argue that while they are committed to uphold free speech and safeguard the privacy of online users, they are bound by the national laws of the countries in which they operate. This argument has not convinced everyone in the international human rights and ethical investor community. Google and Yahoo have faced shareholder resolutions urging the companies to protect freedom of access to the Internet and stop self-censorship.

Google stockholders rejected in May 2007 a motion ordering the company to avoid complicity in human rights violations in China. But the issue overshadowed the corporation’s annual general meeting, an indication of just how far the controversy over China’s Internet censorship had grown in just two years. Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt found himself defending the company’s search engine filtering to reporters during the meeting.

“Without in any way defending their laws and policies,” Schmidt said of China, “the censored or omitted data comprise less than 1 percent of the answers. …We believe that as a result, the Chinese citizen has more information and more choices than they would had we not been in the country.”

Other Internet companies take a similar line, arguing that they would have to pull out of the Chinese market if they were held to the standards of free expression demanded by some human rights advocates.

But those advocates believe that Internet companies can do much more to safeguard individuals’ rights short of pulling out of China. They have urged the companies not to self-censor or provide any information toauthorities about the identity of service users without official written compliance orders.

The reasoning behind an industry-wide set of principles is that, together, Internet and telecommunications companies will be better able to resist the demands of all governments, not just China, that seek to censor information. Some 22 countries actively censor Internet traffic, according to CPJ research. One in three journalists in jail worldwide worked online, with 49 bloggers, online editors, and Web-based reporters behind bars at the end of 2006.

Human rights advocates hope the code of conduct will be for the Internet sector what fair trade and labor agreements have been for agriculture, manufacturing, and resource extraction industries. Key questions for the group will be benchmarking, accountability, and governance. Who will decide whether a company has fallen short of the agreed principles, and how will it be held accountable? Skeptics say that technology companies could sign up for the voluntary code and use it as a fig leaf to pursue business as usual.

Other hurdles include the absence of technology firms that supply the Chinese government. Networking supplier Cisco Systems of the United States is not part of the code negotiations, nor are Internet and telecommunication giants from China, India, Japan, and South Korea.

There is no public deadline for the talks to produce a set of principles, and there are still many pitfalls along the way. The companies are looking for a code that will allow them to operate in China while protecting their reputations for responsible corporate behavior. For defenders of free expression, the acid test will be whether the code keeps future Shi Taos out of jail.