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Amnesty International's "firewall" in Melbourne's Federation Square


With just three months remaining before the Beijing Olympic Games, multinational powerhouses Microsoft, Google and Yahoo are being targeted for their role in internet repression in China.

Amnesty International marked the 100-day countdown to the Games with a national campaign to dismantle China’s “great firewall”, the term coined for its internet censorship regime.

“We’re going around the country and building literal firewalls,” Amnesty campaign coordinator, Sophie Peer said. “The golden shield or great firewall is an internet barrier that stops people discussing issues online, in blogs, e-mail and us from getting our message into China,” she said, adding that Amnesty is one of the many websites to which access is banned.

Launched in Melbourne’s Federation Square, the 1.8 metre high walls are travelling to all capital cities and regional centres, and will land in Sydney’s Martin Place for two days from July 30, a week before the Games begin.

“The idea is that you are confronted with this giant yellow wall, made of cardboard bricks,” Ms Peer said. “We are calling on the public to come and pull the bricks out and tear down the firewall.”

Behind each brick is an action card directed at one of five companies – US giants Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, and Chinese companies Sohu and Baidu.

“There are many others but they are five of the key companies working with the Chinese government to block people’s right to information”, according to Ms Peer.

Each of the internet service providers has allegedly signed a pledge voluntarily with the Chinese government to determine how they will operate, the contents of which are not public.

The action cards will be mailed directly to the companies implicated in maintaining China’s firewall, with hopes that 25,000 will reach their offices by September.

Part of a “multi-faceted approach”, Ms Peer said Amnesty’s campaign will target corporate Olympic sponsors next.

“It’s a more strategic way of achieving change than spending a lot of time and energy talking to a government that won’t engage with us, whereas the companies willl have a dialogue with us,” she said.

Representatives from the human rights group meet with the three US companies, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google every 3 months, but Ms Peer said the response has been mixed and that in the case of Yahoo, their actions have led to the imprisonment of a journalist.

“None of the companies have a policy to stop that happening again,” Ms Peer said. “It’s something where we could see an overnight remedy. Everything that we are proposing to [the internet service providers] would not have them removed from China and none of it would have them lose profits.”

*This article was first published in City Hub, May 19, 2008 and City News, May 24, 2008.