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Web groups ‘ignore’ human rights in China

Amnesty International has accused three of the world’s biggest internet companies – Yahoo, Microsoft and Google – of overlooking their human rights obligations in order to tap into China’s dynamic online market.

The human rights organisation says, in a report to be issued on Thursday: “All three companies have in different ways facilitated or participated in the practice of government censorship in China.

“While companies are under continuous pressure from shareholders to maximise their profits and can be expected to have a presence in lucrative markets, this does not absolve them from their human rights responsibilities.”

Amnesty also demanded that the three companies lobby Beijing for better human rights protection.

Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have argued that their presence benefits Chinese internet users by giving them greater access to information and promoting the development of the internet. They also say they must abide by Beijing’s laws and policies to operate in the country.

But Amnesty dismissed their arguments, saying it was significant that “none of the companies has been willing or able to specify precisely which laws and legal processes it has been obliged to follow”.

It aimed particular criticism at Yahoo for helping Chinese authorities act against two e-mail users: Shi Tao, a journalist jailed for revealing information about Beijing’s media controls, and Li Zhi, a writer jailed for online essays critical of officials.

Yahoo said it had no choice but to co-operate with authorities, and has since transferred control of its China business to a local internet entrepreneur who has made it clear that he is happy to co-operate with police.

But Amnesty said internet companies in China should “exhaust all judicial remedies and appeal” before co-operating with the state in cases with human rights implications.

The group attacked Microsoft for banning sensitive terms from parts of its Chinese blog service, for shutting down one outspoken blogger’s site and for censoring its search service.

Google, the global search market leader, also drew fire for introducing a locally based service that censors sensitive results.

Amnesty noted the “welcome first steps” Google had taken by acknowledging that its service did not accord fully with its principles, and for telling users when results were censored.

Amnesty’s call for companies to lobby for the release of cyber-dissidents and to “exercise leadership in promoting human rights in China” is unlikely to win an enthusiastic hearing from executives who have worked hard to win official approval.

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