Internet and media companies desperate to gain a share of the massive Chinese market are now facing fresh pressure to heed human rights concerns as a result of Google’s announcement that it will cease to censor search engine results and consider pulling out of China after its databases were subjected to a hack attack from inside the country.

The international human rights organisation Amnesty International has now stepped up a long-standing campaign in which it has accused leading Western IT companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google, of compromising their corporate values and helping the Chinese government to persecute its citizens.

Amnesty International’s Hong Kong-based deputy Asia-Pacific director, Roseann Rife,  this morning said that Western IT companies had previously adopted a policy of not physically locating their servers inside China, for fear they could be forced to hand over information on citizens.

“This makes clear that where the information is physically held is not the only issue. It is going to come under attack,” she said. Rife said all companies and NGOs operating in China were subjected to increasing attacks from malware and phishing, and the attempt to mine information was constant.

Rife said she hoped other corporations would also now challenge the government of China. “It is important that internet search engine companies recognise the censorship measures adopted in China are not in the best interests of their customers and do not help promote freedom of expression or the right to information,” said Rife.

In the past, Amnesty has publicised how Yahoo provided email account information to the Chinese government, which was used to gather evidence resulting in the charging of Chinese journalist Shi Tao Shi Tai. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities”.

Shi Tao’s offence was that he had, in April 2004,  e-mailed a pro-democracy website in the United States about a government regulation ordering the country’s media outlets to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the military crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.

In this 2006 report, Amnesty focused on the role of Yahoo! Microsoft and Google in collaborating with the Chinese authorities in suppressing dissent, and made a series of recommendations on how they could do better — none of which were taken up. The report said:

While each of Yahoo!, Microsoft and Google may be considered to be complicit in the Chinese government’s denial of freedom of information, Yahoo!’s actions have, in particular, assisted the suppression of dissent with severe consequences for those affected. The company allowed its Chinese partner to pass evidence to the authorities that was subsequently used to convict individuals, at least two of whom received long prison sentences for peacefully exercising their legitimate right to freedom of expression.

Thus Yahoo! appears to have failed to honour its responsibility to ensure that its own operations and those of its partners are not complicit in human rights abuses. This is in breach of widely recognised international human rights principles for companies.

And in this more recent article, Amnesty highlighted the close links that Microsoft has with the upper echelons of the Chinese government, and its co-operation with the government in shutting down blogs and limiting access to search results.

Amnesty today has congratulated Google on its public airing of the issue, while pointing out that previously the company had co-operated with the Chinese government in agreeing to censor search engine results.