Tech Heavies Team on China Policy to Address Simmering Human Rights Debate

With the Olympic torch now in Beijing, residents there are wondering: Who will carry it those final few steps to light the cauldron in China’s Olympic Stadium?

Meanwhile, Yahoo, Google and Microsoft face their own burning question regarding China: Can an agreement on a code of conduct for business dealings with the country’s Communist government dial down the heat the companies are feeling from Congress and human rights groups?

Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., released a statement Tuesday commending the three companies for their decision to accept basic principles for protecting Web user privacy in countries with repressive regimes. The agreement stems from hearings Durbin’s committee conducted in May.

Human rights groups involved in the discussions say the companies’ management structures will now figure out how to implement the code and agree on a monitoring system. Those final decisions are expected sometime this fall.

Criticism Over Cooperation

The Chinese government continues to generate negative headlines in the run-up to Friday’s opening ceremonies of the Olympic Summer Games. Beijing is refusing to grant a visa for Olympic gold medalist and Darfur activist Joey Cheek. For Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, the criticism revolves around various past incidents. Their cooperation with the Communist government has resulted in dissidents being thrown in jail, as well as restrictions on Web access and search engines.

Human Rights Watch worked with the companies in adopting the code. “If it is implemented, it will certainly improve things in many parts of the world,” Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights for Human Rights Watch, told the E-Commerce Times. “But it’s premature to say how dramatically things will change in China.”

The recent controversies involving the International Olympic Committee and its backtracking over Internet freedoms previously guaranteed to journalists covering the Games “just underscores how important these issues are in relation to the Internet,” Ganesan said, “primarily because the free and open flow of information can have a transformative effect on human rights.”

Monitoring From Third Parties

Agreeing to a code is one thing. The voluntary nature of the agreement could jeopardize its effectiveness, said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization of Human Rights USA.

“It’s urgent that the companies recognize their responsibilities for dealing with these issues in an effective way,” Sklar told the E-Commerce Times. “The fact they’re sitting down is all to the good, but the reality is, the agreement is not going to do all the things it needs to do, and it’s important the companies do much more beyond that written agreement.”

“It’s a fair point,” Ganesan responded. He pointed to forthcoming discussions among the companies that will set up third-party monitoring to ensure code compliance.

“Typically, the principle is that you hold people accountable through public disclosure and kick them out of the initiative if they’re not doing the right thing,” Ganesan said. “We’ve also been supportive of legislation in Congress of things that could be very complementary to a voluntary standard.”

Media accounts of company cooperation with repressive regimes has led to two House hearings and a Senate hearing over the last two years, Ganesan emphasized.

Congress’ Involvement

The threat of governmental regulation is what makes the Competitive Enterprise Institute nervous. “This latest agreement about a code of conduct is the result of political pressure,” Ryan Radia, CEI research associate in technology policy, told the E-Commerce Times. “Who knows how voluntary it is? We don’t think Congress should be prohibiting American companies from doing business anywhere. Economic progress goes hand-in-hand with political freedom. We agree that censorship is deplorable … but the companies doing business with China should make the decision on whether it’s worth it for these companies to do business there.”

Durbin’s office released letters from Microsoft and Yahoo officials reiterating both their willingness to cooperate and their current policies regarding business dealings with countries like China.

“Existing company policy provides that Microsoft will block access to Windows Live Spaces content only where we receive a legally binding notice from a government indicating that the material violates local laws, or if the content violates our terms of use,” wrote Pamela Passman, Microsoft vice president for global corporate affairs.

Yahoo’s letter mentions the establishment of a human rights fund to assist families of dissidents.

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