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Investment funds and analysts to monitor what Internet firms do in repressive countries

At the initiative of Reporters Without Borders, 25 US, Canadian, Australian and European investment funds managing around 21 billion dollars in assets said they are committed to online freedom of expression in a joint statement issued a news conference today in New York. As part of their commitment, they are undertaking to monitor the activities of Internet sector companies in repressive countries. The statement is above all targeted at companies such as Yahoo !, Cisco Systems and Microsoft that help the Chinese authorities censor the Internet or operate online surveillance systems.

The text of the statement and list of signatories :

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Download the declaration

Background :

Reporters Without Borders has on several occasions condemned the ethical lapses displayed by certain Internet sector companies when operating in repressive countries. The organisation wrote to Yahoo ! in July 2002 asking it to explain why it helps Chinese government agencies responsible for censorship. The California-based corporation has for years agreed to censor the Chinese version of its search engine so that, for example, searches for such word strings as “Falungong” or “human rights in China” will display content from official sources only. Reporters Without Borders also tried to get in contact with Cisco Systems, Yahoo ! and Microsoft in December 2003 in the hope of being able to talk about the consequences of their activities for freedom of expression. Our letters received no reply.

As a result, the organisation investigated other ways of getting its views across. It got in touch with investment funds which are existing or potential shareholders in these companies. Boston Common Asset Management, a US investment company that practices Socially Responsible Investment (SRI), agreed right away to look at the issue. It was joined soon afterwards by Domini Social Investment. These two investment companies began by writing to Cisco Systems chief executive John Chambers to request more transparency about the type of equipment and training programmes his company has sold to China in the past 10 years. Many statements and documents indicate that Cisco Systems has provided the Chinese police with technology that allows it to censor the Internet and monitor people while online. But this request was also ignored. Boston Common and Domini then decided to draw up a shareholder resolution in which they reiterate they request for information about Cisco’s activities in countries that are known to flout freedom of expression. This resolution will be voted on at the next general meeting of the company’s shareholders on 15 November.

While pleased with this initiative, Reporters Without Borders wanted to go further and get other investment firms and business analysts to take a stand on the issue. So, together with Boston Common and Domini, it drafted a “Joint Statement on Freedom of Expression and the Internet.” The signatories affirm that respect for free expression is one of the criteria they will take into account when deciding where to invest. They add that they will step up their monitoring of Internet sector companies whose business activities have an impact on the free flow of information online. And they also undertake to support resolutions favouring free expression that are presented at shareholders’ meetings.

The statement has already been signed by 25 investment firms managing some 21 billion dollars in assets. Reporters Without Borders hopes that other investment companies will join this initiative, especially traditional funds that do no specialise in ethical investing. The organisation meanwhile deplores the lack of interest shown by European socially responsible investment companies, of which so far only one has agreed to sign.

Reporters Without Borders points out that this statement is not just targeted at Yahoo !, Microsoft and Cisco Systems. There has been a great deal of comment of late about such cases as the Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, who got a 10-year prison sentence on the basis of information supplied by Yahoo !, and Microsoft’s agreeing to censor the Chinese version of its MSN Spaces blog tool. But other companies participate in online censorship and surveillance in China. Google, for example, decided in July 2004 to exclude any “subversive” website from the Chinese version of its news search engine.

Finally, this statement’s cope is not limited to just China. It could, for example, also apply to Fortinet, the company that installed Internet filters for the Burmese junta, or Secure Computing, which did the same in Tunisia.

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Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Abidjan, Bangkok, London, Moscow, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

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