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Amnesty slams tech giants for ‘aiding’ Chinese human rights abuse

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The great and the good of the IT industry - including Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Websense - stand accused of aiding and abetting human rights violations in China.

The charge comes in a critique by human rights watchdog Amnesty International entitled State Control Of The Internet In China, published this week.

Internet use in China is growing exponentially, with the number of domestic Internet users is doubling every six months, but has only been allowed to flourish alongside heavy handed state controls.

Amnesty chronicles how the Chinese authorities have "introduced scores of regulations, closed Internet cafes, blocked e-mails, search engines, foreign news and politically-sensitive websites, and recently introduced a filtering system for web searches on a list of prohibited key words and terms".

Those violating the laws and regulations which aim to restrict free expression of opinion and circulation of information through the Internet may face imprisonment. Under recent regulations some could even be sentenced to death where the information they circulate is judged to disclose state secrets.

Amnesty International has compiled records of 33 prisoners of conscience who have been detained for using the Internet to circulate or download information.

China depends on the technological expertise and investment of foreign companies who, Amnesty International argues, are providing technology which is used to restrict fundamental freedoms.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls on "every individual and every organ of society" to play its part in securing human rights for all. Amnesty International believes that multinational companies are failing to act as good corporate citizens.

In particular, Amnesty highlights China's Golden Shield project. This project, launched in October 2000, aims to use advanced information and communication technology to strengthen police control in China and a massive surveillance database system will reportedly provide access to records of every citizen

So are IT companies acting morally in supplying technology to China? The issue is far from clear cut. Even Amnesty notes IT is a "cornerstone for economic growth in a country with over a fifth of the world's population". So technology supplied to China is boosting the living standards of people in the country and keeping hi-tech workers elsewhere with orders to fulfil, a not insignificant consideration in such economically challenged times.

And how much control do vendors have over the use of their technology? Much depends on whether the Chinese are adapting general purpose technologies for questionable ends or whether vendors are actively courting repressive regimes by developing Big Brother features in their products.

This is where the moral questions begin. ®

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