Skype, the popular US-based online telephone and text messaging service, admitted on Friday that its Chinese partner was archiving messages that it considered politically-sensitive. Human rights organisations have criticised Western Internet companies for complying with Chinese censorship regulations too willingly.
Chinese skype users are not "free" to use words considered suspect without their details going into a database
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo and now Skype. Human rights groups accuse all these Internet giants of cooperating too willingly with the Chinese government and adhering to its strict regulations on censorship.
In the latest incident, Canadian research firm Citizen Lab has discovered that there exists a database of archived Skype messages that contains words which are considered politically-sensitive.
Words such as “Democracy,” “Tibet”, “Falun Gong” -- a spiritual movement, which is banned in China -- are but some examples of the words considered suspect by Skype’s Hong-Kong based Chinese partner TOM-Online.
In its “Breaching Trust” report, Citizen Lab reveals that there are up to 150,000 words in the database, which is publicly accessible because of insecure servers.
Monitoring messages for politically-sensitive information
Skype, which is owned by the online auction giant eBay, admitted in 2006 that it knew TOM-Online filtered text messages and conversations for politically-sensitive information and sometimes blocked transmissions, which it considered suspect.
However, it assured users that censored messages were destroyed.
But on Friday, Skype president Josh Silverman acknowledged that the messages were being stored in a database along with the personal details of users.
He said that Skype had been unaware of this and was “very concerned”. He also deplored the breach of security revealed by Citizen Lab.
Chinese censorship is “common knowledge”
However, Silverman also reiterated that it was “common knowledge” that the Chinese government monitored communications going in and out of China and that TOM-Online had thus “established procedures to meet local laws and regulations.”
Skype is thus following in the tradition of other Western Internet service providers in China, which say that if they do not comply with governmental regulations, they will not be able to operate in the country at all.
But critics say that the companies could get around the regulations by cooperating with firms off Chinese soil.
Business not repression
Vincent Brossel from the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said that there “were many ways” to do this. “The most important is to get all the servers and hosts out of China so that the Chinese government cannot ask for any private data.”
“We expect big Internet companies to change their policies. They are doing business -- they are not over there to cooperate with the government and help the repression against critical voices;” Brossel added.
If the Chinese government asks for private information or censorship, “they must say no. That’s the only way to preserve their ethical business standards.”
Fastest-growing Internet market
Ethical or not, for the moment doing business in China means complying with government regulations and that includes those to do with censorship.
In the summer, China overtook the United States as the country with the most Internet users worldwide.
Observers say it is unlikely that Internet companies will forego the chance of tapping into the world’s biggest and fastest-growing communications market so easily.