Amnesty International's records indicate that in 2003, there was a 60-percent increase over the previous year's figures in the number of people detained or sentenced for Internet-related offenses. As of Jan. 7, 54 people were held and a further unknown number detained for disseminating information relating to the spread of SARS. Criminal charges of "subversion" or "endangering state security" have been brought for offenses such as signing petitions, calling for reform and the end of corruption, or communicating with groups abroad.
The growth of Internet use in China (as elsewhere) has been phenomenal. Only 6 percent of China's population has Internet access, but that still amounts to 80 million users, a number that's nearly equivalent to the entire population of Germany.
Growing user sophistication and activism make censorship and control difficult for China's Ministry of Culture. But in the report, Amnesty International draws attention to Western companies that it believes have supplied technologies to help the Chinese government do just that. These businesses are Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Nortel Networks, Websense, and Sun Microsystems.
The companies dismiss such allegations, claiming that they have no control over how their technologies are used. However, Amnesty International is concerned that in their pursuit of new and lucrative markets, corporations may be indirectly contributing to human rights violations or at the very least failing to give adequate consideration to the human rights implications of their investments.
On Feb. 25, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor issued its 2003 Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The section on China (http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2003/27768pf.htm) reiterates many of Amnesty International's concerns about freedom of speech, Internet use, and the imprisonment of journalists.
However, China does not accept such criticism without pointing out what it views as serious human rights issues in the West. On March 1, China released "Human Rights Record in the United States in 2003," a response to the U.S. report.
Reported in full in the People's Daily (http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200403/01/eng20040301%5f136190.shtml), the report points out the U.S.'s poor record in crime, violence, drugs, and race relations and includes a special mention of the USA PATRIOT Act. "Under the authority of the PATRIOT Act, the government departments are empowered to wiretap phone calls of citizens, trace their online records, [and] read their private mails and e-mails. The FBI is even allowed to keep a watch on people's reading habits. They check the booklists of what people borrow from libraries so as to judge whether they have been influenced by terrorism." Internet Hate-Mongering
The rights to freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been signed but not yet ratified by China, says: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, or in print ... or through any other media of his choice."
It seems reasonable for Amnesty International to quote this article in its case against China. But coincidentally, only a couple of days after the release of Amnesty's report, Bertrand Ramcharan, U.N. Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for new measures to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the propagation of hatred through the Internet.
At a meeting of an intergovernmental working group on racism in Geneva, Ramcharan called for an international convention on the prevention of ethnic cleansing, an international convention on human rights education, a protocol to the Genocide Convention enshrining strong measures for the prevention of genocide, an international declaration to counter discrimination against indigenous populations, and an instrument to prevent the propagation of hatred through the Internet.
Expanding on his concerns about the Internet, Ramcharan said: "It is a sad fact of the contemporary world that hatred is being spread through the Internet by unscrupulous and misguided people. The Internet is one of the most effective medium[s] of communication we have in the contemporary world. If we are seeking to promote the values of human rights, tolerance, and respect, can we turn a blind eye to this phenomenon--even recognizing the legitimate issues of freedom of expression involved? It would be hard to let the spread of hatred continue. The drafting of an international convention would provide a process to distill the issues and to work out the strategies and norms required."
It's not clear what form this "instrument" or "standard" would take, and no doubt there will be many months of U.N. debate and argument about it. Let's hope the U.N. doesn't lose sight of its aims to prevent one evil--censorship and the suppression of freedom of speech--while preventing another: the propagation of hatred.