Three Empty Seats
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WASHINGTON -- While tech lavishly dished the dap over the promise of President Bush's competitiveness initiative, three empty seats in a House hearing room Wednesday afternoon represented a starkly different reality for IT.
Google, Yahoo and MSN were all invited to brief the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on the search engine industry's complicit endorsement of China's Internet censorship policies.
None showed and all were publicly pilloried since, you may be surprised to learn, access to free and unfettered search results is considered a basic human right by groups such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch.
The Big Three made an interesting trio of no shows to discuss the price of doing business in a global world. Like, for instance, the operation of search engines in China or, as it used to be known in Redbaiting days, Communist China.
The caucus didn't randomly select these companies. Google last week agreed to accept China's strict censorship demands in exchange for the right to launch a local version -- Google.cn -- of its search engine.
MSN and Yahoo have been targets of criticism for rolling over to Beijing's demand to limit search results and produce Chinese surfers' names who attempt to search for such radical terms as "democracy" and "human rights in China."
"These massively successful high-tech companies, which couldn't bring themselves to send their representatives to this meeting today, should be ashamed," admonished California Democrat Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress.
The Big Three, Lantos lamented, "Cannot or do not want to respect human rights when business interests are at stake."
Carolyn Bartholomew, the acting chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, threw some sharp elbows herself.
"We are ... concerned about the apparent contributions U.S. technology companies are making to China's capability to control and repress information," she said.
"Some U.S. technology firms that wish to establish, maintain or expand their presence in the Chinese market have reportedly assisted China's government by providing and/or operating censorship mechanisms."
So, Google, is this the right thing to do? Any evil in there, Sergey and Larry? Is this where MSN wants to go today? Shall we Yahoo up some censorship?
Lantos's verdict: "Companies that have blossomed in this country and make billions, a country that reveres freedom of speech, have chosen to ignore that core value in expanding their reach overseas."
Bartholomew's call: "I wish Yahoo, Microsoft and Google were present today to answer the question of how they reconcile their announced commitment to the free flow of information with their actions aiding censorship in China."
To Google, Yahoo and MSN's credit, they did at least submit a statement to the Wednesday briefing. Less gratifying, though, was their facile dance around the issues.
"While China has made great strides in the past decade, it remains in many ways closed," Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, said in his statement.
"We believe that our continued engagement with China is the best (and perhaps only) way for Google to bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to our users there."
That didn't wash well with Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch.
"It is not enough for Internet companies to argue their mere presence in countries like China will lead to political openness," he said. "It is illogical for companies to say they are expanding the boundaries of freedom in China if they strip their product of the very qualities that make it a force for greater freedom."
Microsoft and Yahoo, of course, are no strangers to buckling under government pressure, both foreign and domestic, having long ago dumped their consciences at the bank door when it comes to doing business.
Last year, Yahoo provided information that helped jail a Chinese journalist and Microsoft's search results in China often return this charming phrase, "This item contains forbidden speech."
Only last month, it was disclosed that both companies freely gave up millions of search terms to the United States government without even the threat of a subpoena. Can Chinese users expect any less?
Google, on the other hand, has resisted the same demand from the U.S. Department of Justice. Do the right thing and all that.
Unfortunately, Google now appears to be following the path forged by Yahoo and Microsoft: profits are more important than rights.
As Congressman Lantos said, they should be ashamed.