Google vs. China: Will Yahoo, Microsoft Follow?

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As Google reacts to cyber-attacks on Chinese activists by strongarming China into letting Google operate without censorship, human rights groups are pressuring other tech companies to follow suit.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch both issued statements calling for broader changes in policy from companies that operate in China. “Too many of them have been willing to comply with Chinese demands that they check their values at the border,” wrote EFF International Outreach Coordinator Danny O'Brien.

Arvind Ganesan, director of HRW's business and human rights program, wrote that “this incident underscores the need for governments and companies to develop policies that safeguard rights.”

All eyes will inevitably turn to Microsoft and Yahoo, both of which operate censored search engines in China. Ganesan speculates that the two companies are reviewing their own policies now, but he guesses that they'll wait and see what happens between Google and China before taking any action.

But there's more to doing business in China than just Web search. After all, the cyber-attacks on Google were an attempt to access activists' Gmail accounts. In 2005, Yahoo was accused of providing a journalist's e-mails to the Chinese government upon request. The journalist was subsequently sent to jail. And beyond Yahoo and Microsoft, there are social networking sites, such as Facebook, that do business in China. How safe are their users from government scrutiny?

Ganesan said all tech companies need clearly defined policies to answer that question. Right now, there's only one public standard for IT human rights policy in foreign countries, called the Global Network Initiative. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are the sole tech company participants -- the rest are advocacy groups and investment firms -- and the initiative is in its early stages, lacking any sort of monitoring system to check on companies' pledges of free expression and privacy. Other companies should either join or announce their own standards, Ganesan said.

Ideally, Ganesan said, tech company policy needs government scrutiny in addition to voluntary standards such as the GNI. Lawmakers have blasted companies before for their behavior in China, but there aren't any laws that govern how a U.S. company must deal with privacy and censorship overseas. That could change if public outcry over these issues grows.

“There's certainly scrutiny of this, and every time there's an incident like Green Dam or an incident with Google, it's just drawing more attention to it,” Ganesan said.

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