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Google makes free expression the focus of doing business

IFEX members have applauded Google's decision to stop censoring the Chinese version of its search engine and its new demand for unfettered Internet access. The company's stand for greater free expression came after it found China-based hackers had gone after the Google Mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists in highly sophisticated and targeted attacks.

Google reports that only two Gmail accounts were accessed by hackers and the content of emails was not obtained. The company's investigation found at least 20 other companies have been similarly targeted. Its research also showed that China-based hackers had regularly accessed Gmail accounts of human rights activists in China, Europe and the U.S.

In a statement released on 12 January, Google said: "We will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognise that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China."

Google is calling on the Chinese government to respect the human rights of Chinese users, says Index on Censorship. "It is precisely this kind of engagement with human rights issues that all companies should incorporate into their business operations." The past censorship agreement blocked criticism of the government and topics like democracy, human rights, the Dalai Lama, the Falun Gong spiritual movement and the Tiananmen Square massacre, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Google's effort to renegotiate its business relationship with China is a critical step towards protecting human rights online, said Human Rights Watch. Google's experience points to the increasing risks faced by foreign information technology firms in China with a government that "devotes massive financial and human resources to censor the Internet and to hunt down and punish netizens who hold views which the ruling Chinese Communist Party disagrees with."

According to an RSF tally, there are a total of 69 bloggers and cyber dissidents detained in China. RSF praised Google's transparency in sharing information about the cyber attacks with a worldwide audience, saying "it is refusing to be an accomplice of the Chinese authorities."

Journalist Shi Tao was imprisoned in 2005 "after Yahoo provided information to Chinese authorities about the personal e-mail account he used to send an internal propaganda department memo overseas," according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The Chinese government maintains tight surveillance of online dissidents with its censoring and monitoring tools, reports Freedom House.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) reports that the Chinese government has ordered China's media to only use information from the state-owned Xinhua and China Daily news outlets when covering Google's January announcement.

IFJ, RSF and CPJ say online interference undermines the safety and security of journalists and their ability to do their jobs and protect sources. CPJ and RSF say hackers have targeted both local and foreign journalists working in China.

One foreign journalist told RSF that his emails were being forwarded to another account. "So many people have been put in danger by these leaks."

Related stories on
  • Media ordered to censor Google news reports

    The Central Propaganda Department ordered Chinese media to only use information from the state-owned Xinhua and China Daily outlets when reporting on Google Inc's 12 January 2010 announcement.

  • Google challenges censorship

    Other companies should follow suit, says Human Rights Watch.

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