Fri, Aug 10, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Keeping corporations irresponsible

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen 游思麗

Late last month an apparently original Chinese police document surfaced on the Internet casting doubt on Yahoo's defense of its involvement in the prosecution of journalist Shi Tao (師濤), who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for e-mailing a Web site about authorities ordering the media not to discuss the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

The California-based Duihua Foundation, which has extensive experience with Chinese police documents, examined the original copy of the hand-written letter from the Public Security Bureau to Yahoo and found it authentic.

After the details of Shi's case emerged in September 2005, in which it became clear that Yahoo had willingly handed private account information to the police that allowed them to identify the journalist as the source of the "leak" of "state secrets," Yahoo was called to US congressional hearings in February last year on the complicity of US Internet companies in human rights abuses in China. Google and Microsoft were also brought in to account for their actions.

With the emergence of the letter from Chinese police to Yahoo, US House Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos has ordered a congressional investigation into whether the company lied at the hearings.

Last year's congressional hearings -- and now the planned probe -- were in itself a victory in that they brought the actions of these companies into focus. A problematic development for human rights legislation has been that rights abuses are often committed by multinational corporations, not states, and these corporations argue that international human rights covenants -- and indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself -- applies to states, not businesses. This was part of Yahoo's argument in front of the congressional committee when it said "the greatest leverage" for human rights issues lies with the government.

But the promise that the hearings held is in risk of flagging. The Global Online Freedom Act proposed by New Jersey Representative Chris Smith to legislate the complicity of US firms in rights abuses abroad did not pass last year. The legislation, Smith contends, would be a major step in clarifying the responsibility of Internet companies not to violate human rights.

Meanwhile, a UN broader initiative of corporate responsibility that includes all kinds of companies, the UN Norms for Business, has also met strong opposition, blocked to a large extent by the US -- yet another example of Washington's ever-disappointing split-personality on human rights. The US has consistently tried to block any specification of the responsibilities of companies, insisting in a Sept. 2004 statement in Geneva that human rights abuses "generally" are not committed by private enterprises.

This argument is not only wrong but irrelevant. For example, the Taiwanese government does not "generally" torture people, but that does not mean that torture should not be illegal in Taiwan.

But in addition to hopes that human rights legislation of companies would be enacted, there was also optimism that the congressional hearings and ongoing campaigning by human rights organizations would directly affect the actions of US companies. Companies have in fact reacted to some extent, although in widely different ways, and not only for the better.

In one positive development,?Google, which last year launched, pledged not to introduce e-mail and blogging services in China until it could ensure the safety of personal account information to protect anonymous bloggers and e-mail authors from persecution by the authorities. Additionally, Microsoft said it would no longer censor Chinese bloggers without legal orders from Chinese authorities and promised not to block Chinese blogs on servers outside of China after it was revealed that it had taken down a Chinese blog run on US servers after a request from Chinese authorities.

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