Internet Firms to Defend Policies

A congressional panel will debate whether U.S. Internet firms should insist on free-speech standards in China.
A congressional panel will debate whether U.S. Internet firms should insist on free-speech standards in China. (By Greg Baker -- Associated Press)
By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. will go on Capitol Hill today to defend corporate policies for dealing with China that they say balance business interests with human-rights concerns.

In testimony before the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations and the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, Yahoo plans to argue that the presence of the Internet does good for closed societies even when censored or restricted.

But some human rights advocates plan to testify that corporate America is abnegating its ethical responsibilities by complying with Chinese law. Others expected to testify include network-equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc. and representatives from the State Department.

The hearing comes after several incidents highlighted the privacy and censorship concerns of doing Internet-related business in China. Indeed, trafficking in information raises issues that complicate the free-speech spirit of many Internet companies. Last month, Google said it would censor certain results on the Chinese version of its search engine. Last year, Yahoo provided e-mail information to the Chinese government that led to the identification and incarceration of a dissident Chinese reporter. In December, Microsoft's MSN shut down the blog of another reporter.

Many other companies have struck similar compromises with the Chinese government to do business in China, which is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world.

Separately, the State Department yesterday said that it had established a Global Internet Freedom Task Force to monitor other governments' policies on censorship and restriction of access to information. The task force will make policy recommendations on how to maximize access to the Internet while minimizing government attempts to block information, State Department officials said.

"If you're on the ground in China, you have to comply with the [local] law," said Michael J. Callahan, Yahoo's general counsel, who plans to testify today. "Fundamentally, being there transforms lives, society and economies," he said.

Callahan said that when any government requests information, the company is often unaware how that information will be used. In the case of the jailing of journalist Shi Tao -- who had used a Yahoo e-mail account to post pro-democracy materials online -- Yahoo was unaware of the government's intentions, he said.

Google and Microsoft have used similar arguments to defend their entry into the Chinese market.

"We overridingly believe that it is better to provide this technology than to refrain from doing so," because on the whole it promotes the sharing of ideas, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a speech in Europe last month. "No technology is perfect; but it is fundamentally a technology that does good that we want to provide to our users in China and throughout the world."

But Mila Rosenthal, director of Amnesty International USA's business and human rights program, said such corporations haven't really tried to use their global brand names to take a stand for openness. "I don't think the U.S. companies have stood up to China," she said.

Global human rights subcommittee Chairman Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said he has been fighting suppression of free speech for 26 years.

"It's reached a new level, with U.S. companies' complicity with tracking down dissidents," said Smith, who has drafted but not yet introduced a bill that among other things would create oversight at the Commerce Department and the Justice Department before any private information about a user could get handed over to repressive governments.

Lucie Morillon, the Washington representative of Reporters Without Borders, said the companies should both self-regulate and be overseen by the U.S. government to prevent future crackdowns against dissident journalists.

"[The companies] are helping to create a country-specific access to multiple versions of the Internet," she said. The group will ask Internet companies not to host network infrastructure in politically repressive countries, and it also will ask the U.S. Commerce Department to approve a company's entry into those markets, Morillon said. According to the group, 25 journalists and 62 cyber-dissidents are imprisoned in China.

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