At the initiative of Reporters Without Borders, several investment funds and financial analysts (list of signatories on the right) said they are committed to online freedom of expression in a joint statement. As part of their commitment, they are undertaking to monitor the activities of Internet sector companies in repressive countries.
Joint investor statement on freedom of expression and the Internet
As investors and research analysts, we recognize that our investment decisions have an impact on human rights around the world. We are therefore committed to using the tools at our disposal to uphold human rights world wide as outlined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), including freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly and association, and security of persons.
The growth of the Internet offers considerable opportunities for global broad-based wealth creation.
Companies involved in providing Internet services and technology are playing a leading role in building global communities and sharing knowledge. We believe that government action to censor, monitor, isolate and jail Internet users for exercising basic human rights outlined in the UDHR threatens the ultimate realization of these benefits. We believe these actions also present significant barriers to growth for Internet sector businesses, which depend on a broadly connected, free Internet.
To help advance freedom of expression, the undersigned:
- Reaffirm that freedom of expression is a universal human right that companies have an obligation to respect throughout their worldwide operations, and, in particular, in countries with a history of serious and widespread human rights violations;
- Reaffirm that Internet sector businesses have a particular responsibility in this domain for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Their long-term success depends on a broadly connected Internet that is free of censorship; and
- Millions of people depend on their products and services for reliable access to news and information;
- Recognize that, according to numerous and credible sources, a number of countries throughout the world do not tolerate public dissent and monitor and control citizens’ access to the Internet as a means of suppressing freedom of expression;
- Recognize 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;
- State that respect for freedom of expression is a factor we consider in assessing a com pany’s social performance;
- Announce that we will monitor the operations of Internet businesses in repressive regime countries to evaluate their impact on access to news and information;
- Commit ourselves to supporting, at annual general meetings of publicly listed companies, shareholder resolutions that we believe are favorable to freedom of expression or otherwise promote the principles of this declaration;
- Call on Internet businesses to adopt and make public ethical codes stressing their commitment to freedom of expression and defining their obligations to uphold these freedoms, and
- Call on Internet businesses to make information public that will allow investors to assess how each firm is acting to ensure that its products and services are not being used to commit human rights violations (including, products and services that enable Internet censorship, surveillance and identification of dissidents).
Reporters Without Borders has on several occasions condemned the ethical lapses displayed by certain Internet sector companies when operating in repressive countries. The organisation wrote to Yahoo ! in July 2002 asking it to explain why it helps Chinese government agencies responsible for censorship. The California-based corporation has for years agreed to censor the Chinese version of its search engine so that, for example, searches for such word strings as "Falungong" or "human rights in China" will display content from official sources only. Reporters Without Borders also tried to get in contact with Cisco Systems, Yahoo ! and Microsoft in December 2003 in the hope of being able to talk about the consequences of their activities for freedom of expression. Our letters received no reply.
As a result, the organisation investigated other ways of getting its views across. It got in touch with investment funds which are existing or potential shareholders in these companies. Boston Common Asset Management was the primary filer of a shareholder proposal with Cisco Systems regarding its human rights policy and shareholders voted on the November 15, 2005. Domini Social Investments co-filed this proposal.
While pleased with this initiative, Reporters Without Borders wanted to go further and get other investment firms and business analysts to take a stand on the issue. So, together with Boston Common and Domini, it drafted a "Joint Statement on Freedom of Expression and the Internet." The signatories affirm that respect for free expression is one of the criteria they will take into account when analysing a company’s human rights record. The signatories state they will step up their monitoring of Internet sector companies whose business activities have an impact on the free flow of information online. And they also undertake to support resolutions favouring free expression that are presented at shareholders’ meetings.
The statement has already been signed by 25 investment firms managing some 21 billion dollars in assets. Reporters Without Borders hopes that other investment companies will join this initiative, especially traditional funds that do no specialise in ethical investing. The organisation meanwhile deplores the lack of interest shown by European socially responsible investment companies, of which so far only one has agreed to sign.
Reporters Without Borders points out that this statement is not just targeted at Yahoo !, Microsoft and Cisco Systems. There has been a great deal of comment of late about such cases as the Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, who got a 10-year prison sentence on the basis of information supplied by Yahoo !, and Microsoft’s agreeing to censor the Chinese version of its MSN Spaces blog tool. But other companies participate in online censorship and surveillance in China. Google, for example, decided in July 2004 to exclude any "subversive" website from the Chinese version of its news search engine.
Finally, this statement’s scope is not limited to just China. It could, for example, also apply to Fortinet, the company that installed Internet filters for the Burmese junta, or Secure Computing, which did the same in Tunisia.