Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Wednesday, 7 May 2008 00:03 UK

Google faces human rights votes

By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

It cannot be easy to be the company that set out with the motto: "don't be evil".

Especially not now.

Screen grab from Google.cn

Google - whose shares currently trade at almost $600 (£300), more than $100 above its level a year ago - is facing two shareholder motions at its annual general meeting on Thursday.

Both insist the company needs to do more to fight censorship and support human rights.

The top three executives at Google control about two-thirds of the voting shares, so neither motion will get a majority.

But that is not the point of the exercise, according to Amnesty International, which will be proposing the first motion at the meeting.

"A lot of shareholders vote and don't attend the meeting but they may pay attention to what happens," says Amy O'Meara, director of business and human rights at Amnesty International USA.

We see technology companies continue to have very vague policies around human rights and frequent violations of their own policies
Jack Ucciferri, Harrington Investments

"We're really looking at it as an opportunity to have an audience to hear what we think about these issues right now and to impress on Google that they really need to move much faster on these issues."

The internet censorship motion originally came from the New York City Comptroller, which looks after the pensions of city employees.

It calls on Google to "use all legal means to resist censorship" and to make it clearer to users if it has "acceded to legally binding government requests to filter or otherwise censor content that the user is trying to access".

Google in China

Most of the criticism relates to Google's Chinese language service Google.cn, which was launched in April 2006.

The company argued that it was better to agree to the Chinese government's censorship rules than to refuse to service Chinese customers altogether.

People using the internet in Beijing
Google believes the motion ignores what it has done for online freedom

Since then, companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have got together with Amnesty and other organisations and experts to form a multi stakeholder initiative on internet and human rights.

But Amnesty says that much more needs to be done.

"There are often national laws or opportunities within the law in China to stand up against requests by officials to do this kind of censorship and the companies like Google have just complied very easily," Ms O'Meara says.

"They haven't even tried from what we can tell."

Google's defence

Google is opposing the motion, on the grounds that its operations in China are already improving transparency and helping Chinese people access information.

It argues that adopting the proposal would hurt its users and business because it would have to close down Google.cn.

In the past year, it has also been trying to persuade US trade officials to treat censorship like any other barrier to trade.

A similar resolution at last year's shareholders' meeting received 3.8% of shareholder votes.

Board committee

The second motion calls for the board of directors to form a human rights committee.

It was proposed by Harrington Investments, a California-based investment manager, which has proposed a similar motion at several other big technology companies.

The idea is to stress that human rights are an issue for the board of directors, not just the management.

"Management is relatively transient in nature. Executives, 'sustainability officers' etc. can be hired and fired on a dime," says Jack Ucciferri, research and advocacy director at Harrington.

"If the directors don't formally engage issues, then any other program, policy, or procedure is essentially meaningless in terms of assuring shareholders that these issues are being taken seriously."

Taking the lead

Google believes that its directors are already spending lots of time thinking about human rights and that this motion would not encourage them to pay greater attention to it.

It argues that its directors are engaging with governments to raise awareness about the negative effects of limiting online freedom.

Harrington is actually very enthusiastic about the company and sees its motion as a good opportunity for Google to take the lead on a big issue and create even more value for shareholders.

But the proposals are clearly also a warning to directors about what will happen if human rights issues become problematic.

"We see technology companies continue to have very vague policies around human rights and frequent violations of their own policies," Mr Ucciferri says.

"If boards of directors truly understood the repercussions to the brand and the corporation then they would not tolerate it, they should not tolerate it and if they did tolerate it they should be held accountable."

Image transformation

Google declined to be interviewed about the shareholder motions.

It is a company whose public image has undergone a transformation in recent months.

It used to be the popular little search engine company battling against the big boys such as Microsoft.

The ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Microsoft to buy Yahoo! has changed all that.

Google has now been characterised as the giant of online advertising that other players have to manoeuvre to compete with.

The company may find that, as a result, its efforts to "do no evil" will come under even greater scrutiny in coming years.


SEE ALSO
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Google shrugs off ad sales fear
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Google and Yahoo to share web ads
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Search engines warned over data
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China's battle to police the web
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