Wednesday, January 13, 2010

IN THE NEWS: Googling Human Rights

Every now and again, we have the welcome opportunity to congratulate a corporation for good human rights practices. Today we say "Bravo!" to Google for taking a stand to support human rights. Yesterday, the internet company disclosed information about attacks on its infrastructure originating in China. During its own investigation into what initially looked like corporate espionage, Google found "evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists." Google's investigation also revealed that hackers targeted "dozens" of other gmail accounts used by people around the world who support human rights in China.

As a result, Google announced: "We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks 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 recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China."

Google has always distinguished between censorship and surveillance -- and rightly so. When corporations help governments to censor the information people can access, they are helping that government to violate the right to information. That's not ideal, but it differs from providing a government with the tools to repress free speech and target human rights activists. Consciously providing a government with the technology to quash dissent, and to identify, arrest, and torture advocates who are exercising their right to free speech makes a corporation a partner in crime. (Rebecca MacKinnon is a good source a more thorough discussion of this issue.)

Google recognized this distinction years ago and decided not to fall into the latter category. Recognizing the risks human rights defenders may face online, the company conscientiously avoided allowing its servers to retain individual user information connected to content -- for example, blogging or chat services -- in China.

Despite the corporation's good intentions, Google has found it difficult to continue operating its censored searches in China without being complicit in that government's surveillance of human rights advocates. By taking a stand, Google is upholding its commitments to the principles of the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of ethics created by "a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics ... to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector."

Go Google. We hope other corporations take notice.

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