Google grilled on human rights

Google's shareholders voted down two proposals that would have compelled the search giant to change its human rights policies

Google's shareholders, following the advice of the board, voted down two proposals on Thursday that would have compelled the search giant to change its human rights policies, but the issue dominated the company's annual shareholder meeting nevertheless.

Sergey Brin, cofounder and president of technology for Google, abstained from voting on either of the proposals. "I agreed with the spirit of these proposals," Brin said. But he said he didn't fully support them as they were written, and so did not want to vote for them.

Several U.S.-based technology companies have been criticized for their activities in China. Google has come under fire for operating a version of its search engine that complies with China's censorship rules. Google argues that it's better for it to have a presence in the country and to offer people some information, rather than for it to not be active in China at all.

However, shareholders and rights groups including Amnesty International continue to push Google to improve its policies in countries known for human rights abuses and limits on freedom of speech. One of the shareholder proposals was from the office of the Comptroller of New York City, which oversees the New York City employees retirement system. The group holds $200 million worth of Google stock.

The proposal, presented by an Amnesty worker, suggested that Google institute a series of policies to protect freedom of access to the Internet. The policies should include using all legal means to resist demands for censorship, informing users when the company has complied with requests for censorship, and hosting information that can identify users only in countries that don't restrict the Internet.

Google is participating in an initiative to develop voluntary guidelines for how Internet companies should respond to censorship demands in countries like China, said Tony Cruz, the Amnesty International member who presented the proposal. While that's a step in the right direction, he said, Google still hasn't made any improvements since its launch in China.

"We've seen little more than talk and defensiveness from Google since the problems emerged," he said. "Nothing precludes Google from taking steps to ameliorate this problem while conversation about the standard goes on."

Harrington Investments submitted a related proposal that was also voted down. It would have created a human rights committee at Google to review the implications of company policies on human rights.

Brin defended Google's activities in China. "Google has a far superior track record than other search companies with respect to making information freely available," he said. He may have been referring to Yahoo, which turned over information to Chinese authorities that led to the imprisonment of a writer.

Google was initially reluctant to launch a service in China because of the difficult environment there, Brin said. "We had reservations that the restrictions we had to live by were not consistent with our policies," he said. "But we were able to have an implementation that honored many of our principles."

He boasted that Google's policies have influenced those of Baidu, the leading search provider in China. Baidu began indicating to users when it had omitted information by request from the government after Google started doing the same, he said.

Brin said that revenue potential isn't what drove Google to enter the Chinese market. "Our primary goal in countries like China isn't to generate as much revenue as possible," he said. "We could abandon it tomorrow and not have a material effect on revenue. Our goal has been what's the most positive we can do."

That explanation didn't seem to placate everyone in the room. Another Amnesty International member said he appreciates the difficulty of the situation in China, but Google hasn't gone far enough.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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