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Internet companies face tough questions on China's firewall

02 June, 2008
By Allison Orr

Last week, the US Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law held a hearing on "Global Internet Freedom: Corporate Responsibility and the Rule of Law".  Witnesses to this hearing included representatives from Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems, as well as Human Rights Watch and the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.

Cisco Systems were particularly open to criticism after Wired's Threat Level leaked an internal document that describes supplying censorship technologies to China as an "opportunity", and discusses how Cisco technology can "Combat Falun Gong evil religion and other hostiles".

At the hearing Mark Chandler, Cisco's Senior Vice President of Legal Services, argued that the company "supports free expression and open communication on the Internet, and believes that its products inexorably drive the world toward more open communication".  Moreover, he pointed out that Cisco sells the same equipment worldwide and does not design products to accommodate political censorship.  Both Google and Yahoo!'s representatives argued that their companies promote free expression and are committed to human rights.

Human Rights Watch, while making note of Yahoo's Human Rights Fund and Google Earth's efforts to monitor human rights crises, pointed out that companies are resistant to independent monitoring of their activities in places like China, where the companies themselves choose what to censor.  While efforts have been ongoing since the beginning of last year to develop a voluntary code of conduct to try to curtail censorship and protect user information, these efforts have largely foundered on companies' unwillingness to be bound by such a code.  HRW therefore argues that a regulatory approach is necessary in order to set standards and make it difficult for governments to force companies into becoming complicit in human rights abuses.

Read the statements from Google, Yahoo!, Cisco, Human Rights Watch and the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.

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