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November 08, 2005
Tearing Down the Great Firewall
    by William Baue

Social investors issue a statement holding information technology companies accountable for collusion with repressive regimes such as China that stifle dissent expressed on the Internet.


"Democracy." "Freedom." "Tiananmen Square." Posting these terms together on the Internet (as this article does) is grounds for imprisonment in China, which is erecting a "Great Firewall" to block cyber-dissent with the complicity of information technology (IT) companies such as Yahoo (ticker: YHOO), Cisco (CSCO), and Microsoft (MSFT). For example, when Chinese authorities came knocking for information on "huoran1989@yahoo.com," Yahoo relinquished the name and phone number of journalist Shi Tao, who was then sentenced to ten years in prison.

The crime? Forwarding to foreign journalists a message his newspaper received from Chinese authorities warning against overplaying the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Yesterday, more than 25 socially responsible investment (SRI) practitioners worldwide with assets over $21 billion issued a "Joint Investor Statement on Freedom of Expression and the Internet" promoting protection of basic human rights as well as long-term business opportunities.

"The Joint Investor Statement on Freedom of Expression and the Internet is a way for active shareholders to empower the management of our companies to not compromise on their commitment to human rights and long-term goals," said Dawn Wolfe, social research and advocacy analyst for statement signatory Boston Common Asset Management. "Engaging in short sighted business operations that undermine widely accepted human freedoms is simply not a sustainable practice."

"As investors, Boston Common Asset Management and our clients are concerned when management chooses to avoid today's uncomfortable confrontation and bows to repressive government clients at the expense of tomorrow's growth prospects and basic human freedoms," she adds.

The statement, which was issued at a press conference coordinated by Reporters Without Borders, was co-signed by US-based SRI firms Calvert, Citizens, Domini, Harrington, KLD, MMA, NorthStar, Trillium, Walden. Other US signatories include CorpGov.Net, As You Sow Foundation, and a number of faith-based institutional investors. International signatories include Ethical Funds, Jantzi Research, and Groupe Investissement Responsable (Canada), Fondation Ethos (Switzerland), and Conscious Investors (Australia).

The statement affirms that democracy and the protection of basic human rights outlined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) represent necessary preconditions for stable investing, and that the Internet particularly thrives on these freedoms. The statement also recognizes that "some businesses help authorities in repressive countries to censor and mount surveillance of the Internet, and others turn a blind eye to the use made of their equipment."

As for actions, the statement commits its signatories to engage with companies through dialogue or resolution-filing to promote best practice, including the adoption of ethical codes covering online freedom of expression that define obligations to uphold these freedoms.

"The Shi Tao case serves as a warning that if the Internet is to live up to its promise, strong policies and procedures must be put in place to guide corporations when faced with these difficult decisions," said Adam Kanzer, general counsel and director of shareholder advocacy for Domini Social Investments. Domini and Boston Common are presenting a shareholder resolution at Cisco's annual meeting next week asking to company to adopt such policy. "Cisco has been accused of helping the Chinese government build their 'Great Firewall' and other surveillance technologies--we are asking to company to adopt and implement a human rights policy to help the company avoid complicity in human rights abuses."

These issues will be on the global stage next week as well with the convening of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia, which will focus on implementing the Declaration of Principles developed at the first phase in Geneva in 2003.

 

 
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