U.S. Lawmakers Lecture Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft on China Censorship - InformationWeek

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U.S. Lawmakers Lecture Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft on China Censorship

'Sickening cooperation,' one lawmaker calls it. But the search engines say they want government help fighting censorship.

Legal representatives from Google, Yahoo, Cisco Systems and Microsoft MSN faced more than three hours of tough questioning today from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as the House of Representatives bared down on what some of its members perceive as troubling complicity in Chinese human rights violations.

Technology companies at the hearing today said that the fact that they were in China at all is a good thing because it gets more information to the Chinese people. "We do not have the leverage to pressure the Chinese into changing their policies," Yahoo SVP and general counsel Michael Callahan told the members of Congress. "Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, 'are the Chinese citizens better off with or without our services?"

However, some lawmakers at the hearing thought this argument dubious at best. Choices to operate in China have also led to Yahoo's cooperation with Chinese authorities to arrest a dissident and Google' redesign of its search engine to reflect Chinese censorship.

"U.S. technology companies today are engaged in a sickening cooperation decapitating the movements of Chinese dissidents," human rights subcommittee chair Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said at the hearing. Smith will soon introduce the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 that aims to "protect United States businesses from coercion to participate in repression by authoritarian foreign governments."

The legislation aims to limit the ways businesses can operate in China, especially how they interact with Chinese authorities and censor information. It deems that any American company that creates, provides, or hosts a search engine or content hosting service may not host those services within certain countries or censor content. They also will not be able to give personally identifying information that would be used for anything other than legitimate crime fighting to foreign law enforcement. Penalties for infractions could lead to fines and the possibility of lawsuits.

Fortunately for MSN and Google, neither has data centers in China. Meanwhile, although Yahoo used to operate in China, it has partnered with Alibaba.com, a company that took over all Chinese operations. However, these companies' content still touches China, making them vulnerable to the law. Lawmakers also questioned Cisco Systems' business practices in China, questioning whether it was time to revisit export control laws since Cisco provides networking equipment to the Chinese police force.

The technology companies at the hearing weren't averse to the idea of legislation; in fact, they welcomed it and said that in order to be a positive force for change in countries like China, they needed help from the American government and non-governmental organizations.

The government is offering some help. The U.S. State Department this week established a task force to investigate the problems posed to the Internet by repressive regimes, a move the search companies wanted.

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