Congressional subcommittees and caucuses are often annoying and self-important, and probably no one attends at least half of their hearings save for the panel members themselves, their staff and the people called before them to testify about whatever.
Nonetheless, in an atmosphere infused with constant references to exporting freedom, democracy and other rights, a report that several internet heavyweights - among them Microsoft and Google - are either refusing or so far ignoring a request from the Congressional Human Rights Caucus to discuss their already publicly acknowledged censorship activities in China, doesn't sit well. At the very least, it seems ill-timed.While American soldiers struggle to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, we have several high-profile companies with an international presence, and more important, influence, handicapping their offerings, blocking certain information and or providing individual subscriber data to the Chinese government, in order to gain a foothold in what is one of the largest, fastest growing and still very underdeveloped economies in the world.
You can make the argument that China is essentially a dictatorship, and if you want to do business there - you can't play the stereotypical Ugly American. You have to play by their rules, or it's game over.
You can also make the argument, as Google most recently has, that it's better to bring some level of internet access to an oppressed public, then to be shut out of bringing any at all. In the latter case, you could certainly make the point that it's the would-be subscribers who will really suffer if the 'net is unplugged.
Both of these arguments, have in fact, been unapologetically posited. So, it begs the question: if the companies are comfortable with these positions, then why would they be uncomfortable expanding upon them before this caucus? And yet, so far Microsoft and Cisco System have refused to attend the Feb. 1 briefing, while Google and Yahoo have yet to accept. Among those planning to attend: Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and representatives from Toronto University and Harvard Law School. What's going to be missing here then is the business perspective, and that could be dangerous.
If Microsoft and Cisco agree to appear, who knows, maybe they'll succeed in enlightening the panel. Maybe the companies will be enlightened. Who can say? But surely a company that has stared down not one, but three different anti-trust investigations, can skillfully parry queries from a little-known caucus. And surely the issues involved in conducting business overseas when a repressive regime is involved, deserve deeper, even public contemplation, particularly when access to a market depends on censoring the product being offered to customers.
Also at issue is the possibility that not testifying might make it easier for several pieces of legislation aimmed at regulating the intersection of the internet, American businesses and repressive regimes, to gain traction.
For example, AFP reports that Republican Chris Smith is considering legislation requiring Internet companies to locate e-mail servers outside "repressive countries," while other legislation now being mulled would prohibit the export of Internet technology to countries restricting free speech.
As it turns out, according to the AFP story, Google and other U.S. Internet companies have also been invited to another Congressional meeting on Feb. 15, this one conducted by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, which coincidentally, is chaired by Smith.
Do Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco really want to squander opportunities to present the business case for working in China? Now does not seem like a good time to bow out of this discussion.