Published 7 June 2021 at Thomson Reuters Foundation, here.
On Friday, users of Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, reported that results for “tank man,” the iconic image from the June 4th 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, were being blocked. Censorship in China is rampant but this was global censorship, with users in the US, Germany, France, and elsewhere experiencing the same search restrictions.
Microsoft responded that it was “due to an accidental human error,” but make no mistake this is not a “human error” bug, it’s a feature of the compromises tech companies have been forced to make for market access in China.
A Faustian Bargain for the digital age
China is well-known for blocking foreign tech companies from domestic operations and those allowed to operate in China must comply with onerous restrictions on internet freedom.
LinkedIn is one of a few foreign social media platforms allowed to operate in China, largely because it regularly censors content, but even so the company was rebuked in March for not censoring enough.
Recently published research by the New York Times reveals that to appease Chinese censorship orders Apple has been proactively reviewing and rejecting apps deemed sensitive in China, like those mentioning Tiananmen, Tibet, or Xinjiang, and since 2017 Apple removed some 55,000 apps from the App Store for Chinese users.
Google, in 2018, in an effort to return to the China market, was developing a censored search engine under project “Dragonfly.” The project has been scrapped but Google has not committed to ruling out development of tools for China in the future.
China pursues its draconian restrictions by its own policy of internet sovereignty, the idea it has the right to control its domestic internet ecosystem, but it’s assault on internet freedom is increasingly having extraterritorial repercussions. Just look at the last few weeks.
In early June, Hong Kong pro-democracy leader in exile Nathan Law’s website 2021 Hong Kong Charter was removed by its hosting company, Israel-based Wix, following a request from the Hong Kong police. The website remained offline for three days, until Wix apologized, claiming it had been removed by mistake.
Also last week, US-based advocacy group, Hong Kong Liberation Coalition reported that its WordPress hosted website had been taken down. The group’s co-founder, Baggio Leung, told Hong Kong Free Press they had only received an email from WordPress saying the website had been indefinitely suspended with no further explanation.
In May, UK-based corporate fraud investigator Peter Humphrey reported that he had been temporarily locked out of his LinkedIn account, after posting content critical of the Chinese government and state-backed China Global Television Network (CGTN).
A Business and Human Rights Reset
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights calls on companies to address the negative rights impacts with which they may be involved, such as the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information online.
National law in China conflicts with international human rights norms and the requirements of doing business in China force companies to abandon their commitments to human rights, which is increasingly impacting internet freedom beyond China’s borders.
Tech companies doing business in China seldom disclose the extent of censorship requirements and those seeking market access do so without openness. At a minimum, companies should commit to full transparency so users around the world can make an informed decision about their services.
Longer term, we need a serious reset in which tech companies pursue globally consistent policies grounded in human rights by design. In part, this means beginning with a concerted resistance to globalizing censorship by China.