By Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International
Facebook, Microsoft, and LinkedIn are among the tech firms expected to be on a charm offensive with Chinese officials at the World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, which starts today.
China has made clear to Western companies what tune they must dance to if they want to gain or keep access to the riches of the Chinese market, currently dominated by national players like Tencent and Sina.
A new Cyber Security Law passed in China last week goes further than ever before in tightening the government’s already repressive grip on the internet, embodied by its “Great Firewall”. It is a vast human and technological system of Internet censorship without parallel in the world. The new law codifies existing abusive practices and seeks to turn tech companies operating in China into de-facto state surveillance agents.
The new law forces companies to pass on vast amounts of data, including personal information and to censor users’ posts with insufficient safeguards to protect freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Companies would be liable for substantial penalties if they fail to do so and there is no transparency about how the data will be used by the authorities.
President Xi Jinping has insisted that “no cyber security means no national security”, but companies do not have to look far to see the chilling reality of what “national security” can mean under China’s broad and vague legal provisions. Over the years the government has detained hundreds, if not thousands, of people on national security charges, often solely for expressing views online critical of the government.
In a case that demonstrates the government’s renewed intransigence, bloggers Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu were criminally detained this year on the implausible charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for compiling and posting publicly available data on social protests in China.
For the Tibetan blogger Drulko, a simple internet posting commenting on a picture showing a heavy presence of armed soldiers at an important Tibetan Buddhist site triggered his arrest. For this and reposting a news report about talks between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment under the pretext of having “incited separatism”.
The new law substantially expands the state’s internet policing power. Information internet companies are required to remove and report to authorities would include items such as the data about protests in the blogs of Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu, and Druklo’s messages about religious freedom, together with personal information, even before the police request it. This practice is not limited to people like Lu Yuyu, Li Tingyu and Druklo, who were on the government’s radar but also includes those whose activities have not yet attracted the authorities’ attention.
It is an Orwellian vision of the internet, a dragnet to trap those the government views as troublemakers, where the right to freedom of expression exists only at the discretion of the censors. Given the current political hardening under President Xi Jinping and the absence of an independent judiciary, there is no saying where the government will draw the line tomorrow.
Tech companies should use the opportunity of the gathering in Wuzhen to seriously question whether they are willing to do business on these terms. Are they prepared to be complicit in the abuse of individuals’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy online?
To avoid fines, suspension or termination of business or the shutting down of websites, the law will require internet companies to self-censor, or censor their own users, to an extent not previously seen, even in China.
If internet companies follow the letter of the new law, users who refuse to sign up to real name registration will have no access to phone networks, the internet, social media or instant messaging services. Censorship will not stop at social media posts but includes private messages as well.
The Chinese government has justified these draconian regulations by invoking the need to protect the country’s “internet sovereignty” and manage “threats from outside”. While governments must protect people from genuine security threats, “internet sovereignty” goes much further and threatens the very principles of a global and open internet.
Technology companies have a responsibility to respect the right to privacy and freedom of expression. They should challenge the new law and make known to the government the company’s principled opposition to implementing any requests or directives which violate fundamental human rights.
It is not easy for companies to navigate the often fraught and complex negotiations with the Chinese government, and many have been burnt before. But the message they must deliver to Chinese officials this week is that principles and people come first and the terms laid out in the Cyber Security Law are not ones they are prepared to sign up to.