Saturday, September 10, 2005

From combined dispatches

HANGZHOU, China — Former President Bill Clinton yesterday sidestepped talk of China’s jailing of Internet political dissidents, but indicated Web censorship could have a commercial backlash in the future.

“In China, I think, that so far the political system and restraint on political speech in the Internet has not seemed to have any adverse commercial consequences,” Mr. Clinton said at the China Internet Summit.

“It will be interesting to see whether that is true of the future.”

Mr. Clinton was in Hangzhou at the invitation of Yahoo Inc., which last month bought a $1 billion, 40 percent stake in Chinese online retailer, the summit host.

“In America, the Internet is this wild cauldron of dissenting voices. We have now whole different media over the Internet with all the blog sites in America,” he said.

His comments come just days after a media outcry over revelations that Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. provided e-mail account information to Chinese police that assisted in the conviction of a mainland journalist.

Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison on April 27 for “illegally providing state secrets abroad.”

He had posted on the Internet a government gag order prohibiting the state press from commemorating the 15th anniversary of the bloody crackdown on the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests.

Earlier yesterday two leading rights groups urged Mr. Clinton to encourage Western Internet companies to respect freedom of speech when operating in China.

“Internet companies must be open on where they stand with respect to their human rights obligations,” said the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

“President Clinton is a good ambassador to relay this message and has a valuable opportunity this Saturday.

“The role that Yahoo played in securing Shi Tao’s conviction does damage to Yahoo’s brand name,” the group said.

The New York-based group Human Rights in China also weighed in, urging Mr. Clinton to bring China to task over its commitments under the Beijing 2008 Olympics Action Plan to encourage a free and open information society.

“President Clinton should take this important opportunity to underscore the international human rights obligations of both states (China and the United States) and transnational corporations and other business enterprises,” the group said.

Mr. Clinton did not respond to questions from reporters about demands by human rights activists.

In 2002, Yahoo became one of many firms to voluntarily sign onto the government-mandated “Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry.”

Despite the restrictions, Yahoo and its major rivals have been expanding their presence in mainland China in hopes of reaching more of the country’s fast-growing population of Internet users, who now number more than 100 million.

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