Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. on Wednesday asked the U.S government for help in dealing with state censorship in China and other countries, which have forced the search engines to block information on their sites.
In letters to a Congressional Human Rights Caucus investigating Chinese censorship, the companies urged the U.S. government to take up the issue during talks with Beijing.
"While we will actively work to encourage governments around the world to embrace policies on Internet content that foster the freer exchange of ideas and promote maximum access to information, we also recognize that, acting alone, our leverage and ability to influence government policies in various countries is severely limited," Yahoo and Microsoft said in a joint letter.
Google made a similar request in a separate letter sent by Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel for Google. McLaughlin urged the U.S. government "to treat censorship as a barrier to trade."
The companies also said they were discussing their dealings in China with U.S. officials.
Restricting access to information has become a part of doing business in China for search engines. Microsoft MSN and Google filter search results to abide by Chinese laws and regulations. Yahoo has sidestepped the issue by partnering with Chinese marketplace Alibaba.com, which runs the portal's operations in China.
Google and Microsoft are also calling on the Internet industry to define policies and practices for dealing with government censorship. Both companies tell search-engine users when information is removed due to government restrictions. No details, however, are provided.
"This is not, to be sure, a tremendous advance in transparency to users, but it is at least a meaningful step in the right direction," McLaughlin said in the caucus letter, which was posted on the company's blog.
To avoid problems with the Chinese government, Google has said it won't provide Web mail or blogging services in China. McLaughlin said that would continue until "we are comfortable that we can provide them in a way that protects users."
Microsoft in January was forced to take down the blog of outspoken Chinese journalist Zhao Jing, in order to comply with China's laws. Yahoo last year gave information about journalist Shi Tao's personal email account to Beijing, which later jailed him for 10 years on charges of divulging state secrets.
In addressing a Microsoft conference in Portugal Tuesday, Brad Smith, general counsel and senior vice president for the company, called for collaboration among Internet companies on censorship, and unveiled Microsoft's policy on blogs hosted on MSN. Smith said the company would remove access to blog content when it received a government-issued, legally binding notice indicating that the material violated local laws.
Google on Wednesday declined to say whether it was in discussions with Microsoft on an industry framework for doing business in China or other countries that restrict information.
"Google is engaged in discussions with other companies in the industry, but at this time, we don't have anything further to elaborate on," the spokesman said.
In the caucus letter, McLaughlin acknowledged that filtering by Chinese Internet service providers had caused the Chinese version of Google.com to be unavailable about 10 percent of the time. The Google News service was almost never available, and the company's image search was available only half the time.
As a result, the company was forced to launch a domestic version, google.cn, in order to remain competitive in the market, where it faces stiff competition from Yahoo and China's leading search engine Baidu.