Reporters Without Borders

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I’m sitting in a function room at the New York branch of the Overseas Press Club, live-blogging this Reporters sans Frontieres press conference.

Up now is Julian Pain, the RSF’s internet guy. He’s talking about the problems with having firms doing business in internet-repressive countries like China. The first fund to sign up was Boston Common.

The second fund to sign up was Domini, they now have 25 funds with some 2 billion dollars under management.

They tried writing to Cisco—no response until they got a shareholder resolution listed for the upcoming general meeting. Then they got a response.

Julian’s talking about how they only have American funds signed on to this effort. Now—‘What does socially responsible investing means?’ Problems with all talk, no action.

Previously talked briefly about Microsoft and Yahoo! issues—including the Shi Tao case.

Julian notes the irony in having American techology empower these repressive regemes (i.e. Burma, Tunisia, etc).

Now, Dawn Wolfe from Boston Common is talking. BC is a ‘socially responsible’ fund. They also engage the companies they hold on issues that the companies may have (i.e. they work with the companies they invest in to make the more socially responsible).

Boston Common brought this issue to Cisco’s attention in January; they were unimpressed by Cisco’s response, so they worked with Domini to raise the shareholder issue. Notes that helping this countries filter is seeking short-term profits at the expense of long-term growth.

Adam Kanzer from Domini. Why should investors care about this issue? There has been an ongoing debate about US corporations and China. Feels that without shareholder involvment, companies will mostly ignore external pressures.

“Democracy offers the best possible environment for investment.” Nice soundbite. Even if the business case could be made for censorship and repression, they believe they cannot make that trade-off. They also believe that the existence of the internet will eventually lead to a free(er) press and democracy, but at the broadest level, that’s like saying that the existence of newsprint will lead to a free press. The internet is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used to both build and destroy.

There is no magic bullet to fix these kinds of problems. But they (Domini) believe that they need to be transparent, they need accountability, they need regular reports to shareholders.

Both Domini and BC have researched Cisco and they believe that Cisco has no model to guide them when it comes to human rights and new clients (i.e. repressive governments).

Now Lu Kun, the wife of Yang Zihi. Yang is now doing time in a Chinese prison. She’s speaking through a translator.

She’s here to speak on behalf of her husband, who enjoys ‘being a free thinker’. He graduated in 1988 from the department of Mechanics of Beijing University. He was a computer software engineer. In 1998, he created a website called “Yang’s Garden of Free Thoughts”. It called for a free exchange of ideas to improve the country. From the website, “I believe that throught the exchange of ideas, we can bring freedom and democracy to our country.” He was arrested for his website and sentenced to eight years in prison.

He was sentenced along with three other men. They were all charged with treason, and the essays listed on the website were cited as the evidence of treason. They were all tortured while in custody awaiting trial.

Yang and Lu were forbidden to communicate with each other for three years. She still cannot talk to him, though she writes and sends packages frequently.

Lu was also arrested. They forced her to sign a letter forbidding her from telling anyone that her husband was arrested, and she could not discuss the matter with anyone, publically or privately. She lost her job and her livelihood, and the Beijing police forced her landlord to evict her. In the two years that they lived together, they were forced to move four times.

At the final appeals court, several witnessess for the prosecution retracted their statements and stated that those statements were coerced; the court ignored those statements and upheld the sentences.

Now she’s talking about some other noted Chinese Internet dissident cases, including Shi Tao. A brief discussion of how tightly Internet use in China is monitored—‘any word suggesting government instability (or maybe ‘threatening government stability’) is impossible to get on the Chinese internet.

Now on to the Q&A session:

Question 1: “What about the company that says that maintaining good relations with the Chinese government is in the company’s best interest?” Answer, in short: “Is collaboration really in a company’s best interest, long term?”

Question 2 about Iran: I missed that one, too busy trying to condense the previous answer. ;-)

Question 3: How effective is the RSF guide to bypass internet filters? Answer: The RSF guide is a simple guide for those who don’t know how to get around the filters. Geeks will always be able to get around the filters, but it’s really hard for the everyday user. Side note—the Tunisian government will selectively unblock (turn off the filters) when they know that external observers (e.g. Julian, other press freedom organizations) are inside the country. They can even turn it off for specific locations.

Next question is for the fund representatives about how many shares of Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, they hold. Answer—some, but not all. Check the websites for further details (Boston Common and Domini (hey, I’ve been spelling it right!)). Note that they have no voice if they sell their shares. They believe that being able to continually remind mangement of their greater obligations is a very useful position.

Another question about holding shares, and Julian is again pointing out that it’s far more powerful to hold shares and engage that way than rather not hold shares and say “we won’t buy your stock until xyz”.

Julian: There’s a myth that you can’t negociate with China. Remember when they were going to launch their own WiFI standard? They never did do that, did they…

OK, that’s basically it. Apparently this was being webcast (and IRC’d) in Vietnam, of all places. Not quite sure how that worked…

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Thanks for blogging this, Paul!!

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