China’s Internet censorship is perhaps the most pervasive and its filtering system most sophisticated. The Chinese government requires all companies operating there, whether Western or Chinese, to engage in an opaque self-censorship practice limiting access to any content that could potentially undermine state control, including but not at all limited to political content, information about minority groups, and a vast array of proxies and circumvention tools. Google’s 2006 entry into the country ended four years later when, following a series of cyberattacks originating from China, the search giant decided to stop self-censoring results, effectively ending their business there.
China also uses its technological systems to monitor and target individuals that the regime dislikes, most prominently democracy advocates and the "Falun Gong evil religion" which ended up in a Cisco presentation that surfaced in 2008.
Since Google yanked its search services from China in 2010, the market has been left entirely to Chinese companies, with Baidu dominating with 83 percent of the market share. This week, it was reported that Microsoft has struck a deal with Baidu to offer its Bing web search services in English. Like other online platforms that do business with China, Microsoft will be required to self-censor its search results.
Microsoft Bing currently offers search for a number of countries, including China. Interestingly, the Bing censored SafeSearch option, which can reasonably allow parents to limit their children's access to inappropriate material and other similar things, but becomes unreasonable as an country-wide content censorship tool, is enforced for China, as well as for a number of other country-specific Bing instances, including India, Taiwan, province of China*, and Singapore. The site also enforces SafeSearch for the Arabic-language version of its page, despite the fact that several of the more than twenty Arabic-speaking countries don’t censor the Internet at all.
Just as we applauded Google's decision to cease censorship in China, we have grave concerns about Microsoft’s choice to enter the Chinese market, as it inevitably will result in censorship of search results, and will prevent the Chinese people from accessing their full rights to freedom of expression, including their freedom to access information of interest and use to them. Microsoft should seriously consider whether it wants this role in the world.
As noted above, Cisco's actions have raised concerns about its role as the helper of Chinese oppression for a long time now. It previously came under fire and was the subject of congressional hearings in 2006 and 2008 after a PowerPoint presentation that indicated Cisco had helped create China’s “Great Firewall,” and specifically marketed it to China for use in targeting religious minority Falun Gong surfaced (see page 57). As a result of these slides and likely other information, Cisco faces two lawsuits that accuse the company of complicity in helping China censor the Internet and track down members of a religious minority.
This week, it was reported that Cisco will help the Chinese government build a massive camera surveillance network in the city of Chongqing. Though Cisco stated that they will not be providing the specific camera equipment, The Wall Street Journal’s report alleges that the company will provide the networking equipment required to administer a large-scale surveillance system.
Whether the equipment provided is the cameras or the backend network infrastructure, Cisco appears to have made the choice to help the Chinese government surveil its citizens and, inevitably, target dissidents and disfavored minorities.
In 2006, we suggested in a letter to the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations a code of conduct for Internet companies in authoritarian regimes. Those standards remain just as relevant today. Under them, the choice by both Cisco and Microsoft to favor the Chinese government over its own people is a wrong choice. We urge both companies to reconsider.
(*) As part of EFF's application to become an accredited NGO at the United Nations, we have been requested to use that organization's official terminology: Taiwan, province of China.