U.S. lawmakers minced no words in taking some of the countrys largest technology companies to task over their involvement in the Chinese governments censorship of the Internet.
The companies, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems, maintained that they are required to comply with the laws in any country where they do business.
Calling the companies role in China a “sickening collaboration, decapitating the voice of the dissidents,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said that American technology is enabling repressive regimes to exploit and abuse their citizens.
The Internet has “become a malicious tool: a cyber sledgehammer of repression of the government of China,” Smith said at a joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations and the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
“For the sake of market share and profits, leading U.S. companies like Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens.”
If Microsoft were to defy government directives in a country where it does business, it could face sanctions that could include the prosecution of employees and the end of it services in that country, said Jack Krumholz, managing director of Federal Government Affairs and associate general counsel at Microsoft.
“It is a well-established principle of international jurisdiction that global Internet companies have to follow the law in the countries where they provide services to local citizens,” Krumholz said.
The notion that U.S. industry cooperation with Chinese authorities leaves the Chinese people better off, on balance, than objecting to the censorship policies, rubbed several lawmakers the wrong way.
“These companies need to do more than show virtual backbone. What Congress is looking for is real spine,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif.
“Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply dont understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.”
China has imprisoned an estimated 49 cyber-dissidents and 32 journalists for posting information critical of the government.
One online writer, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after authorities discovered his identity with the help of Yahoo.
Michael Callahan, general counsel at Yahoo, testified at the hearing that when Yahoo China was required to turn over the information about Shi Tao, the company had no information about the nature of the investigation.
“Indeed, we were unaware of the particular facts surrounding the case until the news story emerged,” Callahan said.
“Law enforcement agencies in China, the United States and elsewhere typically do not explain to information technology companies or other businesses why they demand specific information regarding certain individuals.”
Under a strategic partnership formed in October 2005, Yahoo merged its Yahoo China operation with a Chinese company, Alibaba.com, and Yahoo does not have day-to-day control over Yahoo China.
Googles involvement in restricting search engine results for users in China was based on the idea that it can be of more value to the Chinese people by continuing to provide a service curtailed by the governments policies than providing no service at all, according to Elliot Schrage, vice president for corporate communications and public affairs at Google.
“We decided to try a different path, a path rooted in the very pragmatic calculation that we could provide more access to more information to more Chinese citizens more reliably by offering a new service—Google.cn—that, though subject to Chinese self-censorship requirements, would have some significant advantages,” Schrage said.
“Our hope is that our mix of measures, though far from our ideal, would accomplish more for Chinese citizens access to information than the alternative.”
The companies efforts to defend their actions did not appease many committee members.
Smith likened industry compliance with Chinese censorship efforts to IBMs cooperation with Nazi Germany in World War II.
“Yahoo said that it must adhere to local laws in all countries where it operates,” Smith said.
“But my response to that is: if the secret police a half century ago asked where Anne Frank was hiding, would the correct answer be to hand over the information in order to comply with local laws?”
Cisco Systems has also come under fire for enabling repressive measures in China, but the companys vice president and general counsel, Mark Chandler, said that it does not design products to accommodate political censorship.
“The tools built into our products that enable site filtering are the same the world over, whether sold to governments, companies or network operators,” Chandler said.
“The features in our equipment are off-the-shelf and not altered in any way for any market or region. Similar technology is available from at least a dozen other U.S., Canadian, European and Chinese companies.”
Smith said that he plans to introduce legislation formalizing an initiative launched Feb. 14 by the Department of State, creating a task force to help U.S. companies protect freedom of speech abroad.
It would include controls on the export of some hardware and software, and it would ban locating e-mail servers in countries without due process laws.
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