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
Cisco (CSCO), and
Microsoft (MSFT). For example, when Chinese
authorities came knocking for information on "firstname.lastname@example.org," 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
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
"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.
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.