Freedom of expression NGO PEN America has urged tech companies not to become willing accomplices in China’s expanding system of censorship and surveillance of online expression.

The organisation called China’s expanded system of censorship under President Xi Jinping a “broad-scale and daily attack on free expression” in a new report released on Wednesday. It said that Xi’s government has expanded its grip on social media by continually developing technical tools to censor citizens and even surveil private communications. The crackdown has occurred as China has expanded the legal framework for internet controls, centralising control in the hands of high-level decision makers.

It said foreign social media and technology companies should choose not to enter the Chinese market, as “there is no way for them to operate in China at present without becoming a willing accomplice in widespread human rights violations.”

“Chinese social media companies have no choice but to play an active role in enabling this system of repression — something American social media companies weighing entry into the Chinese market should bear in mind, while the choice is still theirs,” said PEN America’s chief executive officer Suzanne Nossel.

The NGO said that China’s model of cyber sovereignty – the idea that each country should be able to regulate its own internet space – is incompatible with the right to free expression and opinion, and serves as ideological justification for widespread online censorship.

“At a time when people across the world are increasingly concerned about the spread of misinformation online, about cyber-security, and about promoting a healthy and informed online civic discourse, Xi presents ‘cyber sovereignty’ as a reasonable and thoughtful solution, as well as a government’s right. But it is a poison pill, proposing a cure that is far worse than the disease,” it said.

Most major foreign social networking sites including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat are currently banned in China. The authorities have characterised online censorship as necessary for maintaining social stability and national security.

In or out?

Faced with the system of censorship, some firms have chosen to pull their services from China, as Google did for its search engine in 2010 – though it retained offices and staff for advertising and research and development. Others such as LinkedIn have agreed to censor some content on their platforms in China.

Google opened its third office in China at the beginning of this year. It also announced in December its first artificial intelligence lab in the country.

Facebook has long expressed interest in China, with its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg conducting high-profile attempts to win over Chinese officials. The social media company created a censorship tool to help it get back into China, and in May, it quietly and anonymously launched a photo-sharing app in China through a separate local company, according to the New York Times.

It reported that Zuckerberg defended the move, saying: “It’s better for Facebook to be a part of enabling conversation, even if it’s not yet the full conversation.”

Apple also came under fire last year when it removed apps including VPN censorship circumvention tools from its mainland App Store. It also moved iCloud users’ digital keys from the US to China earlier this year to comply with new regulations requiring companies to store user information within the country, prompting human rights concerns.

In reaction to the same law, Taiwanese company Asus withdrew its cloud service from mainland China so it would not have to comply, according to Apple Daily.

PEN America urged technology and social media companies to refrain from doing business in the Chinese market unless they can strike deals with the Chinese government whereby they would not be obligated to enforce Chinese regulations relating to censorship, or otherwise violate the rights of customers’ privacy and free expression.

It also urged companies to make public any initiatives to provide governments with tools to surveil or censor social media posts.