China forced to face its critics over Internet Censorship

The Observer has reported that at the UN conference in Athens on the internet last week countries accused of turning the internet into a tool of repression – and the companies accused of helping them do it – were confronted with the full force of international condemnation.

The Observer has led a campaign for internet freedom this year.

Officials from China, Iran and other nations notorious for censoring websites and persecuting bloggers heard speakers at the inaugural Internet Governance Forum denounce restrictions on freedom of expression online. The IT corporations Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems were made to defend their businesses in China. Microsoft admitted that it might have to consider quitting the country.

Five months ago Amnesty International launched its campaign, urging an end to internet repression, in the pages of The Observer

The forum, attended by more than 1,500 delegates from around the world, styled itself as a ‘giant brainstorming experiment’, spending four days discussing the future of the net without trying to reach conclusions.

The Observer report went on to say: The otherwise sedate series of talking shops was electrified when Steve Ballinger of Amnesty told the conference: ‘We’re here because not only do we see the internet as a potentially powerful force for human rights, but also, one way or another, freedoms are under threat, not just from governments that are shutting down websites, blocking, filtering, locking people up for what they’re saying online, but also from IT companies that have colluded with repressive countries, particularly in China.’

‘Fred Tipson, Microsoft’s senior policy counsel, looked slightly taken aback.’

He responded: ‘We are maximising access to information to users in governments that Amnesty is targeting for its criticism. It’s those users we have to keep our focus on.’

Later, however, at a fringe workshop, Tipson admitted that China’s tightening controls might force it (Microsoft) to reconsider. ‘Things are getting bad,’ he said. ‘Perhaps we have to look again at our presence there. We have to decide if the persecuting of bloggers reaches a point that it’s unacceptable to do business. ‘

In a rare moment of theatricality during the ‘Openness’ debate, Julien Pain, of Reporters Without Borders, marched up to the front of the hall and thrust his laptop at Art Reilly, senior director of Cisco Systems, to show him a 2002 Cisco brochure demonstrating how its software could be used by the Chinese police. Reilly denied the charge of collusion. ‘We’re selling the same product in every country around the world,’ he said.

According to the Observer there was also an extraordinary intervention from China in the shape of Yang Xiokun, from its permanent mission in Geneva.

He insisted: ‘In China we don’t have software blocking internet sites. Sometimes we have trouble accessing them but that is a different problem. We do not have restrictions at all.’

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