Is the internet necessarily a force for
freedom of speech? Consider the following cases, reported by Amnesty
International in the latest issue of Human
Rights Defender
(unfortunately not online, but subscribe here).

In 2004, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was
jailed for ten years after emailing to sources in the US copies of Communist
Party guidelines directing journalists not to fuel social unrest on the
anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Shi Tao’s name and email account details were provided to the authorities
by Yahoo, according to his lawyer.

In December 2004, Ly Zhi, a former civil
servant, was jailed for eight years for criticising the corruption of local Chinese
officials in an online discussion group. Once again, Yahoo is believed to have provided his details
to the authorities.

In September 2005, Li Yuanlong was arrested
after he posted articles on the internet about the poverty of people in his province of China. His
articles prompted fundraising to pay the school fees of children but he still
remains in prison facing charges of incitement to subversion.

Amnesty says there are dozens of cases of Chinese
citizens being arrested – sometimes before they have even left internet cafes –
for trying to access politically sensitive websites. More than 60 people are in
jail for expressing independent thought via the internet.

“Don’t be Evil” is Google’s corporate
motto and its stated aim is to make
the world’s information universally accessible and useful. Yahoo, Microsoft and
the rest haven’t been idealistic, or foolish, enough to nail their colours to
the mast in this way. Perhaps they are wise, because the Amnesty report makes
it clear there are limits to corporate idealism, and nothing shows them up
better than the siren call of the Chinese market.

The Chinese have taken to the internet
rapidly, with users increasing from 600,000 in 1997 to 111 million today,
making China second only to the US.

But the Chinese Government’s monitoring
systems are the envy of dictatorships the world over, and they have been developed
using technology from companies such as Intel, Yahoo, Nortel, Cisco Systems and
Sun Microsystems. Google, the most recent entrant to the Chinese market, did
not compromise itself as much as Yahoo, but has still agreed to block access to
“subversive” sites.

These companies claim their presence in China,
while compromised, is still a net benefit to the people and to freedom of
speech. Perhaps. But Amnesty suggests they can and should do better.

If all these companies took a united stand,
Amnesty says, they could wield their
collective clout to establish precedents that uphold freedom of speech, rather
than abandoning it. It would be the most powerful kind of international
pressure, greater than that exercised by any nation state.

In the meantime, Amnesty is asking people
to write to Yahoo on behalf of Shi Tao. More information here.