U.S. Senator Probes Baidu-Facebook Partnership

Although Facebook has yet to release an official statement about a partnership with search engine Baidu in order to finally enter the Chinese market, many regard the move as a done deal. That includes U.S. Senator Dick Durbin.

The Illinois Democrat and assistant majority leader in the Senate has written a letter to Baidu’s Chief Executive Officer Robin Li, asking him about the how the partnership between that search engine service and Facebook would affect Chinese users’ right to free speech and privacy.

A copy of the letter appears at the bottom of this post. In this missive, Durbin explains that Baidu “has a moral obligation to respect fundamental human rights,” and that, after personally trying to use Baidu during a visit to China, he confirmed that “Baidu heavily censors its search results.”

“I am also concerned about recent reports that Baidu and Facebook may enter into a partnership to launch a social-networking site in China,” Durbin states. He asks whether this rumor is true, and if so, how Facebook users in China will be “protected.”

I think the senator fails to understand that you can’t frame the issue like this: “protecting” Chinese users is precisely what the Chinese government thinks it’s doing whenever they censor a website or even part of on. Baidu operates in China and caters to Chinese users, following the country’s rules. In reality, if there is anyone Durbin should be asking that question to is Facebook, more so than Baidu, don’t you think?

In all fairness, Durbin is partially concerned about this partnership precisely because, according to him, Facebook has thus far failed to place safeguards to protect activists in “repressive governments” that use the social network to advocate for human rights.

Implied here: Durbin has concerns about whether Facebook will adequately address protecting the human rights of potential Chinese users.

Rumors about the controversial partnership have consistently become stronger in the past couple of weeks. It’s a well-known fact that, were Facebook’s entry into China confirmed, the social network would have to come up with ways to censor plenty of its content.

Because the mechanics of such a move will create heaps of controversy, it’s no wonder that we’ve been talking about this partnership ever since Mark Zuckerberg’s visit to China late last year, but have yet to hear any official details on how this partnership would actually play out.

What do you think about Durbin writing to Baidu’s CEO — should the U.S. government have any say in Facebook’s moves overseas?

May 4, 2011

Robin Li
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Baidu Inc.
Beijing, People’s Republic of China

Dear Mr. Li:

I write to express my serious concerns about your company’s censorship of the internet. I urge you to take immediate and tangible steps to protect human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy.

I understand that Baidu controls the vast majority of the internet search market in China. Your share of the search market increased when Google, the second largest search engine in China, decided to stop cooperating with the Chinese government’s internet censorship regime.

I appreciate that Baidu has given millions of Chinese citizens the ability to access information. At the same time, your company has a moral obligation to respect fundamental human rights. This is particularly important in light of the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on dissent, including the detention of many internet activists.

According to China Digital Times, Baidu “has a long history of being the most proactive and restrictive online censor in the search arena.” Technology expert Rebecca MacKinnon says “consistently, Baidu has censored politically sensitive search results much more thoroughly than Google.cn.” As a reward for Baidu’s censorship efforts, you reportedly received the “China Internet Self-Discipline Award” from the Chinese government.

I recently returned from a Congressional delegation to China. I decided to personally verify the reports about Baidu’s censorship. During my trip, I accessed Baidu’s homepage and attempted to search for a number of terms. I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that Baidu heavily censors its search results.

Of course, Baidu is not the sole obstacle to internet freedom in China. Other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing, censor search results on behalf of the Chinese government. Access to sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter is blocked. In fact, I tried to send a tweet during my trip, but was unable even to log on to Twitter’s homepage.

As a member of the U.S. Congress, I am especially concerned about Baidu’s internet censorship because of your company’s extensive business dealings in the United States. Baidu has been listed on NASDAQ since 2005. I understand that two of Baidu’s five directors are American and that American institutions are significant investors in Baidu.

I am also concerned about recent reports that Baidu and Facebook may enter into a partnership to launch a social-networking site in China. I have previously expressed my view that Facebook does not have adequate safeguards in place to protect the human rights of its users. As demonstrated by recent developments in the Arab World, social networking technology is particularly susceptible to exploitation by governments.Let me assure you that I am not singling out Baidu for criticism. Nor is this a new concern for me. As the Chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over human rights issues, I have held hearings on the role of U.S. technology companies in protecting internet freedom; written to dozens of American internet companies about their human rights practices; and heard testimony from Obama Administration officials, technology companies, and human rights activists.

Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that, with a few notable exceptions, the technology industry is failing to address the serious human rights challenges that it faces. As a result, I am working on legislation that would require technology companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face liability. Baidu and other public companies whose shares are traded on the U.S. stock exchange would be subject to this legislation.

In the meantime, I would appreciate your response to the following questions, which I have posed to dozens of American companies:

  • Please describe your company’s policies and practices for advancing and protecting human rights and minimizing the risk that your products and/or services will facilitate human rights abuses.
  • What are your company’s future plans for protecting human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy, in China? Please describe any specific measures you will take to ensure that your products and/or services do not facilitate human rights abuses by the Chinese government, including censoring the internet and monitoring political and religious dissidents.

Additionally, please respond to the following question:

  • Do you plan to enter into a partnership with Facebook to provide a social-networking service in China? If so, what safeguards will you implement to protect the users of this service?

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,
Dick Durbin
U.S. Senator

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