Internet Companies Ducking China Policy

Now comes Cisco Systems with the latest episode of the tech industry's waffling over its dealings with the Chinese government. Cisco Senior Vice President Mark Chandler told Congress May 20 that his company "has not and does not design products to accommodate political censorship."

Unless, of course, you count supplying the Chinese government with networking gear as cooperation. Cisco claims if it doesn't sell that equipment to the Chinese, someone else will.

In 2007, Yahoo publicly apologized for disclosing the name of Chinese dissident Shi Tao to the government. Tao is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. Google continues to censor certain search terms in its operation in return for being allowed to do business in China.

"Because it is so difficult for just one company to create systemic change, Yahoo has also been a committed participant in a broad-based global human rights dialogue," Yahoo Vice President Michael Samway told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We are working with industry partners, academics, human rights groups and socially responsible investors to develop a global code of conduct."

Google General Counsel Nicole Wong chimed in on the same theme: "One company alone can only have limited impact. In testimony before the U.S. Congress in 2006, we said that we would work with other technology and telecommunications companies to develop shared principles that can serve as guidelines for doing business in countries that restrict access to Internet content and information."

That all sounds good, except that it hasn't happened. Two years after the fact, Congress is still waiting for those "shared principles" and a "global code of conduct."

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin urged the companies to get on with it and quit delaying. More delay, he warned, could result in Congress taking action. That raises this intriguing question: Which is worse, foot-dragging in the industry or a law that attempts to regulate U.S. companies' conduct with repressive regimes?