Rights groups, US senator wade into Facebook's China plans

A US senator, along with rights groups, have waded into the rumoured collaboration between Chinese search service Baidu and Facebook.

Assistant Senate Dick Durbin has written a letter to Baidu asking that the company take immediate steps to protect human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy, while the Open Rights Group has said it wants to “hear how- and if – Facebook will defend or compromise the rights of Chinese citizens.” 

We are inclined to agree, considering the huge access to personal data Facebook has.

China has recently started leaning even harder on suspected dissidents, particularly through the use of social media. It is scared of the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” and freedom of information is something its government is not particularly fond of.

Facebook would have to allow certain concessions for a venture in the country. We expect if the service proved popular the Chinese government would take particular interest. Facebook has faced allegations that it is censoring its users here in the UK and the US – what about China? 

This is a concern shared by the Open Rights Group Executive Director Jim Killock, who told TechEye: “Other companies have found it impossible to operate in China without being compelled to violate the privacy and free speech of users.

“Such violations may have very serious consequences for Chinese dissidents. We want to hear how – and if – Facebook will defend, or compromise, the rights of Chinese citizens.”

Although neither Facebook nor Baidu have confirmed the rumours, which surfaced last month, it’s believed that the pair will work together to build a new service – presumably with the tight internet controls China requires.

Rights campaigners at Demand Progress have also kicked started a petition directed at Zuckerberg, asking him not to fall victim to China’s Great Firewall.

They also claimed that Facebook did not respect civil liberties and was more keen to turn a profit.

And now comes the letter from Mr Durbin, who wrote: “I appreciate that Baidu has given millions of Chinese citizens the ability to access information.

He said at the same time, the company had a moral “obligation to respect fundamental human rights.”, which was particularly important in light of the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on dissent, including the detention of many internet activists.

He said his fears had stemmed through personally accessing Baidu’s homepage and attempting to search for a number of terms.

“I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that Baidu heavily censors its search results,” he added.

Durbin has previously written to Facebook regarding his concerns that the company does not have adequate safeguards in place to prevent repressive governments from monitoring activists who use Facebook.

In his recent to letter to Baidu, he pointed out that to stop us all falling victim to censorship he was working on legislation that would require technology companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face liability. Baidu would be subject to this legislation because its shares are traded on the US stock exchange.

Baidu has been asked to respond to questions previously raised in the US, about technology giants regarding their policies for protecting human rights. This includes describing the company’s policies and practices for advancing and protecting human rights.

Durbin wants to know Baidu’s future plans for protecting human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy, in China as well as any specific measures it would take to ensure  services did not “facilitate human rights abuses by the Chinese government, including censoring the internet and monitoring political and religious dissidents.”