Global Network Initiative, Yahoo Microsoft Google, human rights groups

Initiative Against Internet Suppression Good Start But Lacks Teeth, Some Say

October 30, 2008 04:40 PM
by Josh Katz
Several Internet companies have signed on to the Global Network Initiative in an effort to stem Internet control in countries like China.

Global Network Initiative Seeks New Standards

Companies such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have teamed up with human rights groups to advocate the Global Network Initiative. The culmination of a two-year effort, the initiative is meant to counteract the attempts by some governments, particularly that of China, to suppress the dissemination of information on the Internet, and to use the Internet as a surveillance tool on their populations.

The Initiative states that privacy is "a human right and guarantor of human dignity," and the companies that participate in the campaign are supposed to object when a country attempts to seize that right.

Companies that sign on to the agreement pledge to hire outside auditors to judge how well they follow the guidelines of the Initiative. Participants don’t have to verify how well they are adhering to the rules until two years after they join the endeavor, however. The punishment for failing to the meet the criteria is “unclear,” Scientific American reports.

Yahoo, Google and Microsoft have faced criticism in recent years for acceding to certain countries’ requests to minimize Internet freedom, and the Initiative is seen as their response. Google has been charged with blocking information about democracy and Tiananmen Square on the Internet, for example, at the insistence of the Chinese government, the BBC reports. Canadian researchers have claimed that a Skype joint venture has kept tabs on some Chinese Internet users. Observers have named the result of such alliances between the Internet companies and the Chinese government the “Great Firewall of China.”

"This is an important first step," said Mike Posner of Human Rights First. "Companies need to step up to the plate and be more aggressive in challenging unwarranted government interference," he told the BBC.

But Morton Sklar, executive director for the World Organisation for Human Rights USA, feels that the Initiative isn’t enough. "After two years of effort, they have ended up with so little," said Sklar. "It is very little more than a broad statement of support for a general principle without any concrete backup mechanism to ensure that the guidelines will be followed."

Mark Feldstein, an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, is skeptical of the Initiative as well. "Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt and view this as well-meaning, the reality is that when push comes to shove, these governments are going to make decisions in their own interest and will force these companies to heel, regardless of what is written up [in the guidelines],” he was quoted as saying by Computerworld.

The Initiative comes during the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and combines many of the principles of that declaration along with those from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, according to Scientific American.

Background: Internet companies criticized for aiding Chinese suppression

In January 2006, Microsoft tried to justify why it shut down a blog that rebuked the Chinese government. The company claimed that the censorship was "in line with Microsoft practices," according to The Guardian.

MSN Spaces, a joint venture between Microsoft and Chinese-controlled Shanghai Alliance Entertainment, closed the blog of New York Times researcher Zhao Jing after Zhao criticized the dismissal of the editor at the independent newspaper, Beijing News.

"Most countries have laws and practices that require companies providing online services to make the internet safe for local users. Occasionally, as in China, local laws and practices require consideration of unique elements," Microsoft said, according to The Guardian.

Yahoo also had to defend its involvement with the Chinese authorities. In November 2004, Shi Tao, an editor and reporter for the Chinese publication Contemporary Business News, was taken into custody and later officially arrested for “revealing state secrets,” according to InformationWeek. Yahoo helped the Chinese government apprehend Shi, who had been posting information on the Internet under a pseudonym, by giving the authorities Yahoo e-mail account information.

“Yahoo and other Internet companies like Google and Microsoft have consistently stated that they are required to abide by the law in all countries where they do business,” InformationWeek reported in a 2007 article. “All three have asked the U.S. government to treat censorship as a trade barrier.”

Opinion & Analysis: Will the initiative make a difference?

Larry Seltzer, a writer for eWeek, sees potential in the Initiative. “The important thing is to make sure that important companies don't become part of the state censorship and repression machine,” he writes. “In the long term, as the principles put it, information and communications technology companies and the products and services they provide will help to spread ideas of freedom as they help people to communicate more. In the long term, I don't think the machine can compete.”

In New Zealand PC World , Geoff Palmer is more cynical. “Welcome to the Hypocrites Ball!” he writes. “Three major corporations who can't even keep their own houses in order have joined forces to tell whole countries what they should be doing about privacy and free speech.” Palmer cites recent incidents where Google, Microsoft and Yahoo abetted Chinese censorship efforts to buffer his point.  

In a blog entry, Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre, addressed the arguments surrounding the Initiative. “Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Human Rights First, and the Committee to Protect Journalists would not be putting their reputations behind this thing if they didn't think it was meaningful,” MacKinnon writes. “That said, the initiative must prove its value in the next couple of years by implementing a meaningful and sufficiently tough process by which companies' adherence to the principles will be evaluated and benchmarked.”

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