Western internet companies complicit in Chinese online censorship: Solutions call for out-of-the box thinking

Sep 20, 2011, 06:00 ET from The SecDev Group

OTTAWA, Sept. 20, 2011 /PRNewswire/ - The complicity of Western internet companies in Chinese online censorship is the subject of a new report by The SecDev Group.

"Collusion and collision: Searching for guidance in Chinese cyberspace" examines how companies have struggled to balance ethical and economic interests in their bid to capture the world's largest market of internet users.

The report provides an overview of the 'Great Firewall' of China, the past participation of five US technology giants (Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Skype and Cisco) in China's censorship regime, and the legal and ethical obligations and commitments that are violated by censoring online content.

Key report findings:

The Chinese government has enacted a pervasive regime of laws, rules, and regulations that empower it with control over access to the internet, content, and user information. The regime applies these controls to online communications within China as well as data entering or leaving the country. Foreign companies are required to comply as a condition of doing business.

China's censorship and surveillance policies are of particular concern to Western companies that provide internet search engine services. Search engines can be gateways to content control. They also collect specific information on users. As such, search engines can be powerful tools for online policing and controlling the flow of information available to users.

Most of the major Western internet companies active in China - for example, Google, Yahoo! Microsoft and Cisco - are based in the United States. All have faced ethical dilemmas when faced with China's censorship and surveillance policies.

Most companies have acceded to China's demands for information control, seeing this as the price of doing business. This choice has often led to concrete instances where the companies have aided and abetted human rights abuses, as the case-studies in this report illuminate.

By contrast, Google opted to withdraw its services from mainland China.

China's policies contravene U.S. positions on cyberspace openness, access to information, freedom of speech and the individual's right to privacy. They also violate accepted international norms on these issues -- norms that are increasingly being extended to include cyberspace.

So what should be done about Western ICT corporations active in China whose compliance with Chinese law requires them to collude in the violation of established human rights?

Voluntary codes to enforce ethical behavior on the part of corporations have thus far been ineffective, and existing legal remedies are inadequate. No real legal remedies exist to deter and correct corporate complicity in aiding and abetting Chinese human rights abuses.

This report calls for new approaches that are practical, realistic, and actionable, and that balance the competing public and private interests at stake.

"The lack of legal remedies and the hollowness of voluntary codes mean that the only incentive to uphold basic international norms is a sense of conscience and the potential for bad publicity," said Rafal Rohozinski, founder and CEO of the SecDev Group. "Complicity with censorship compromises cyberspace as a global commons. This has the potential to damage not only freedom of expression and access to information, but also global commerce."

"The power of internet companies in the information age to shape our access to information, freedom of speech and the individual's right to privacy are tremendous," added Rohozinski. "As responsible corporate citizens these companies -- as well as their home governments -- cannot continue 'business as usual' any longer."

Full report:


About The SecDev Group

The SecDev Group works at the cross-roads of global security and development. We provide analysis, toolsets and investigations that inform policy and address risk in the information age. Our focus is countries at risk from violence, insecurity and underdevelopment. Our methods combine in-field research -- consulting people on the front line of events -- with advanced data-mining and visualization techniques. Our goal is to bridge the gaps between research, policy and practice.

We represent a global consortium of practitioners, scholars, and former policy-makers with expertise in development, conflict and recovery, armed non-state actors, security, intelligence and the cross-cutting impacts of cyberspace.

SOURCE The SecDev Group