An alliance of investors and researchers is pledging to monitor technology companies that do business in countries with shaky human rights reputations, and is asking the companies to proclaim their commitment to freedom of expression.
Twenty-five investment groups, representing about $21 billion in assets in the United States, Europe and Australia, are signatories to a "joint investor statement on freedom of expression and the Internet," an initiative spearheaded by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
The statement comes after several instances in which technology companies have been criticized for cooperating with governments, notably China, in order to secure strong market positions.
"As shareholders, we need to feel confident that our companies are not complicit in human rights abuses, directly or indirectly, and that they're not collaborating to effectively quell Internet traffic, to harm their own good reputations and to reduce their long-term growth opportunities," said Dawn Wolfe, social research and advocacy analyst for Boston Common Asset Management, one of the participating investment funds.
Although China and other countries have come under fire for limiting what their citizens can see or post on the Web, China also is a particularly sought-after market, for the potential its vast population offers.
Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. have been accused of helping the government there censor news sites and blogs. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
And in a recent case, Reporters Without Borders criticized Yahoo Inc. for allegedly helping the Chinese government trace the private e-mail account of a Chinese journalist who was later imprisoned for providing state secrets to foreigners. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Yahoo has defended its move, saying it is obliged to comply with Chinese regulations.
Julien Pain, head of the Internet Freedom Desk for the watchdog group, said Reporters Without Borders had tried to enter into dialogue with technology companies, without much success. He said he hoped bringing in some of the companies' shareholders would encourage them to do more.
"I don't know if it's going be successful in the end," he said. "What we want is to raise the issue. We want them to discuss this issue and engage in some thinking about it."
At a news conference Monday, Wolfe and Adam Kanzer, director of shareholder advocacy for Domini Social Investments, discussed a shareholder resolution calling on Cisco Systems Inc. to report on what the company was doing to develop a human rights policy, which Wolfe said she would present at the company's annual meeting next week.
Cisco, the world's biggest maker of computer networking equipment, was the main equipment provider for ChinaNet, which serves the vast majority of China's Internet users. Reporters Without Borders and others have questioned whether Cisco helped the Chinese government come up with ways to monitor Internet use.
Cisco has denied participating in any kind of censorship, and has said the products it sells in China are the same sold around the world. On Monday, Cisco released its first Citizenship Report, which outlines the company's business practices and social investment programs.