For the sake of human rights, let a hundred blogs bloom
April 29, 2007
When slavery opponents campaigned for abolition in the 1700s, they used a printing press to mount the world’s first human rights campaign. The dominant technology of the day contributed to an eventual ban on the transatlantic trade and later an end to slavery itself.
By Robin Kirk
Today, the Internet is our printing press. Activists around the world turn to e-mail, blogs, online video and Web pages to communicate.
But all is not well in cyberland.
On April 18, the World Organization of Human Rights USA, a United States-based group, filed the first-ever lawsuit against Yahoo, Inc., alleging the company provided information to the Chinese authorities that led to the 2002 arrest and torture of Internet user Wang Xiazoning.
According to the lawsuit, Xiazoning was no criminal. He used a Yahoo e-mail account to circulate electronic journals and articles that supported democratic reform and to communicate with other democracy advocates.
Wang’s wife, Yu Ling, has said that her husband is being held in a labor camp where he has been tortured.
U.S. law allows lawsuits against American companies that aid in human rights abuses overseas. In 2004, for example, oil giant Unocal settled a lawsuit brought by Burmese villagers who claimed they had suffered forced relocation, forced labor, rape, torture and murder at the hands of Burmese army units that defended a pipeline shared by Unocal.
It is surprising to see innovative, young technology companies in the same dock as familiar villains such as oil companies. While human rights activists madly adapt to the Internet by blogging, posting video of violations on YouTube and clogging legislators’ accounts with e-mails, censors and the police are busy patrolling the virtual universe for nonviolent protesters and human rights advocates.
Yahoo is not alone. Yahoo and Google have been roundly criticized for signing a “Public Pledge on Self-discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry” with the Chinese government, effectively turning the companies, in the words of one human rights leader, from “an information gateway to an information gatekeeper.”
Microsoft and Skype block terms they believe the Chinese government wants to censor. Cisco supplies the routers that allow the government to divert Internet traffic away from references to the Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s system of Internet censorship and surveillance, popularly known as the “Great Firewall,” is the most advanced in the world.
China is not the only scoundrel. In March, an Egyptian appeals court upheld a sentence of four years against Abdel Kareem Suliman Amer, for “insulting Islam and the president of Egypt” for his pro-democracy blog. And in a tantrum against YouTube, the government of Turkey last month abruptly blocked the video service, where lurkers energetically and sometimes profanely argue over Turkey’s unwillingness to recognize the 1915 genocide of ethnic Armenians.
In a response to criticisms, Yahoo has claimed that it is “following local laws.” But to claim “the law let me do it” is an evasion of a company’s obligation to avoid actions that significantly contribute to human rights abuses.
Like their counterparts in the actual world, Internet companies need to adopt policies that promote freedom of speech and expression. Specifically, companies should not store data from users exercising basic rights such as freedom of expression in places where that data is vulnerable to seizure. All companies should refuse to take on the role of censors. If they are obligated to, they should make that obligation clear to the users, who can then seek out alternative services.
And we, the users, need to make sure this happens, by contacting these companies and expressing our views (even if we are wearing blogger pajamas).
One way to pressure companies is to use alternative services that have better track records. Some companies and universities (like my own) use Google as a default search engine, a choice that can be reviewed with an eye toward encouraging the company to reform.
Student groups are circulating petitions to Internet giants urging them to adopt tougher standards. Irrepressible.info, a campaign launched by Amnesty International, is a good place to find out more.
Companies can also ensure that users in countries promoting censorship have access to software such as Anonymizer, which automatically migrates sites blocked by censors and sends the updated addresses to users via e-mail updates.
Abuses will happen, whether in sweatshops or the super-charged world of the Internet. As they construct our future, Internet titans need to understand they are neither immune from wrongdoing nor incapable of making things right.
Paraphrasing that departed tyrant Mao Zedong: “Let a hundred blogs bloom.”
Kirk is a visiting lecturer at Duke University and coordinator of the Duke Human Rights Center. She blogs at http://robinkirk.com/wordpress/