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Yahoo! signed the Internet Society of China's Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry.
In a letter dated 30 July to Yahoo! chairman and chief executive officer Terry Semel, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth expressed his disapproval.
"The vague language of the pledge would appear to require Yahoo! to identify and prevent the transmission of virtually any information that Chinese authorities or companies deem objectionable," he wrote. "The pledge is an inappropriate commitment for an industry leader to undertake."
Human Rights Watch released a copy of the letter on 9 August, saying in a statement that Yahoo! executives had not responded to a request by the group to discuss the issue. A Yahoo! spokeswoman in Hong Kong was not immediately available for comment.
Among the provisions contained in the pledge, Internet service providers agree under Article Nine to "monitor the information publicised by users on Web sites according to [Chinese] law and remove the harmful information promptly", and refrain from "establishing links to Web sites that contain harmful information so as to ensure that the content of the network information is lawful and healthy".
The provisions of the pledge do not apply only to Web sites in China, covering access to Web sites located outside China. In Article 10, signatories to the pledge agree that, "Internet access service providers shall inspect and monitor the information on [Chinese] domestic and foreign Web sites that have been accessed and refuse access to those Web sites that disseminate harmful information in order to protect the Internet users of China from the adverse influence of the harmful information".
The likes of Yahoo! are not legally required to sign the Internet Society of China pledge. However, the matter highlights the legal and cultural challenges that Internet companies face when operating across international boundaries and in multiple legal jurisdictions, each with their own laws that regulate access to the Internet and online content.
In line with Chinese laws, Yahoo! appeared to be making an effort to limit access from its mainland Chinese portal, www.yahoo.com.cn, to Web sites containing content banned in China.
A search conducted in Chinese for "falun dafa", the name for the method of exercise and meditation practiced by adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China, returned one link to a Hong Kong-based Web site maintained by Falun Gong members. That Web site could not be reached online at the time of writing.
The efforts to restrict access to sites banned in China are apparently not duplicated at Yahoo!'s US Web site, www.yahoo.com/, where a search for the same keywords, also in Chinese, yielded 13,500 results.
Chinese Internet users can access Yahoo!'s US Web site and its search engine. While Internet service providers may block access to specific sites in China, Chinese users can, theoretically, access those sites through the use of proxy servers located overseas.