U.S. Firms Balance Morality, Commerce
Sunday, February 19, 2006
BEIJING -- A congressional hearing in Washington last week focused attention on the practices of four U.S. Internet companies doing business in China -- Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems -- amid mounting criticism that they are making money in the world's second-largest market of Internet users at the expense of human rights.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the subcommittee that convened the hearing, has accused the companies of a "sickening collaboration" with the Chinese government's efforts to police the Internet. He has also drafted a bill that would restrict their ability to cooperate with Chinese efforts to censor political content or apprehend online dissidents.
The companies have acknowledged making troubling compromises to do business here, but say that they must comply with Chinese law and that the Chinese people are better off with them in the country because their services have promoted greater freedoms. They have also said, though, they would welcome a more active U.S. government role in fighting the demands of China's censors.
Critics inside and outside China say the companies have not fully weighed the moral problems surrounding their operations here, especially since many of the services they provide are offered by Chinese competitors. They say the companies should use their leverage as high-profile U.S. companies to resist censorship and push for changes on behalf of the entire industry.
"Bottom line is, it's good they're in China. . . . But there's a lot more they can do when it comes to thinking through the human rights implications of their business practices," said Rebecca MacKinnon, a Harvard researcher who has scrutinized the behavior of U.S. Internet firms in China. "If high-tech companies are serious about doing the right thing, they can join together and lobby for more transparency and accountability in the way in which Chinese officialdom deals with Internet services."
For example, Chinese officials often call Web site managers by phone and order they delete material, without providing justification. U.S. companies could push for a written order citing a legal violation, which might cause the censors to act more carefully and less arbitrarily, MacKinnon said.
Each company summoned to testify on Wednesday has made different decisions about balancing the competing ethical and commercial pressures of providing Web services in China.
Google announced last month that it was launching a censored search engine to improve its service in China, where users say the government often blocks its regular site and the results it returns. The new search engine is the first in China to disclose to users when links are being blocked because of government restrictions.
But when Google launched the site, one popular blogger in China ridiculed it as the "eunuch edition," referring to the castrated men who served the emperor in ancient China.
Google also has decided not to host its e-mail and blogging services in China, to avoid being required to provide information to the police. In addition, by continuing to offer its regular search engine, Google remains a more powerful tool for finding political material than its Chinese competitor, Baidu, which filters its results aggressively.
Google has not, however, disclosed the sites and keywords it uses to censor its new service.
Yahoo made different choices when it began offering Web services in China in 1999. It filters search results without telling users that it is doing so, and it launched an e-mail service based in China and provides user data to the police when requested.