Amnesty International UK and an Internet surveillance monitoring organisation have claimed that several large technology companies are guilty of collaborating with "repressive" governmental regimes.
Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have all assisted governments in countries such as China and Iran, Amnesty alleged. Cisco is accused of helping China construct the Internet-filtering system which prevents citizens from accessing certain sites.
The human rights group made this claim as part of a campaign to raise awareness of Internet suppression. Amnesty International has launched the irrepressible.info campaign "to get Internet users to stand up to governments that try to repress the Internet, and the IT companies that help them do it", an Amnesty spokesman told ZDNet UK.
Microsoft was criticised for closing down the blog of Zhao Jing, a Beijing-based researcher for The New York Times, at the request of the authorities. Google's Chinese version of its search engine was "nowhere near good enough", Amnesty said, as it provided censored results, while Yahoo was castigated for its role in the arrest and prosecution of Shi Tao, a journalist sentenced to ten years' hard labour after his email records were turned over to the authorities.
"It's important to target the companies. While states bear ultimate responsibility for censorship and repression, it would be impossible to do it without the cooperation of these huge IT firms," said the Amnesty spokesman.
The human rights group also alleged that Internet hardware companies Cisco and Sun had collaborated with the Chinese communist regime by providing and maintaining technologies that have been used for censorship.
"Cisco and Sun Microsystems have reportedly cooperated closely with the Chinese authorities in building monitoring and filtering technology, to provide hardware used by the Chinese government which results in Chinese users not being able to access restricted and foreign information sites," said the Amnesty spokesman.
Open Net Initiative (ONI), an Internet surveillance monitoring partnership of leading academic organisations, has warned that China implements Internet filtering by configuring routers at the international gateway connections to block access to specific IP addresses and domain names.
This system, known as the Great Firewall of China, has been operating for several years. Cisco and Sun have been criticised for their involvement in the past.
But Cisco, as well as supplying the hardware, has allegedly provided technical support to the Chinese authorities, according to Ronald Deibert, a member of ONI and director of Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.
"My educated guess is that it would be unlikely for any company to have a major contract of this sort without supplying support for one of its primary service functions," said Deibert.
"I believe not only is [supplying hardware] detrimental to the population of China, it is a violation of human rights, as outlined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights," Deibert added.
Cisco denied participating in censorship practices in China, or in any other country, but admitted that Cisco technology was used by the Chinese regime.
"We were not contacted by Amnesty ahead of the [launch] and, unfortunately, they have repeated allegations about Cisco and its business practices that are factually inaccurate. Cisco has never custom-developed products for the China market and we do not participate in censorship activities in any country," Cisco told ZDNet UK.
"The networking hardware and software products that Cisco sells in China are exactly the same as we sell in every market in the world. And it is our users, not Cisco, that determine the applications that they deploy."
"Some countries have chosen, as a matter of national policy, to restrict or limit access to information on the Internet to its citizens. The router functionality that may be employed by such nations to restrict this access is the same functionality that libraries and corporate network administrators use to block sites in accordance with policies that they establish. Whereas this functionality can be used for many different purposes, Cisco has not specially designed or marketed products for any government, or any regional market, to censor Internet content from citizens," said Cisco.
However, in a testimony in April to the US House International Relations Committee, Ethan Gutmann, a former business consultant in China, alleged that Cisco had sold a specially designed firewall to the Chinese government and deployed a "Policenet" for the state security forces.
"Cisco... denies selling any special configuration. Chinese engineers who actually worked on the firewall project are equally adamant that it was custom-made," Gutmann told the Committee.
"By 2003, Cisco's 'Policenet' was deployed as the Internet backbone of the Chinese State Security system... Zhou Li, a systems engineer from Cisco's Shanghai Branch, explained to me that... a policeman or PSB agent using Cisco equipment could now stop any citizen on the street and, simply by scanning an ID card, remotely access his danwei (work unit files): political behavior, family history, fingerprints, and other images. The agent could also access his surfing history for the last 60 days, and read his email. All in real-time," said Gutman.
Gutmann claimed this has led to the arrests of pro-democracy campaigners and other peaceful protest groups.
"Any assertion that Chinese censorship is purely a government-to-government issue is premature until these companies dare to — explicitly and systematically — test the limits of Chinese laws. And until they perform that test, they should not be viewed as simply following Chinese law, but as working for Chinese Communist Party objectives," Gutmann said.
Amnesty has laid into Cisco's human rights record in the past, claiming in November 2002 that Cisco had provided "important technology which helps the Chinese authorities censor the Internet". Nortel was also alleged to be supplying technology to enable deeper packet inspection.
This week, Amnesty called on IT companies to challenge governments which ask them to cooperate with the abuse of human rights, "exhausting all judicial remedies before complying with state directives," said the spokesman.
"Companies can also lobby for the release of cyber-dissidents and journalists who have expressed themselves peacefully online, and can cooperate with other companies in doing so," the Amnesty spokesman added.
Amnesty also said companies "should make publicly available all records of dealings with repressive governments".
The United Nations told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that it had not yet investigated the role of technology companies in human rights issues.
"Technology companies are selling their products and governments are using them in different ways," said a spokesman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
"I don't think any UN human rights expert has specifically looked at the question of technology companies in these countries," the OHCHR spokesman said.