Search Finds No Shame
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WASHINGTON -- The gasbags were full, the hot air searing. The leads waited in the wings primed and pumped, armed with loaded questions, sure of mission and confident of a rigged outcome.
The stage was set for a periodic Washington set piece: industry shaming. Wednesday's invited guests? The luminaries of search: Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. The crime? Doing business with China.
The plot of this morality play is always the same, no matter the industry. In this production, haul the search business before the congressional dock, point fingers and threaten federal regulation if it doesn't develop some semblance of standards and best practices.
Throw in the politically charged issue of human rights and a roomful of cameras, and all that was lacking were dogs, ponies and a dozen big-footed clowns piling out of a funny car.
Microsoft, still in the sort of regulatory probation hell that stems from antitrust settlements with the federal government is, of course, an old hand when it comes to humbling sessions before disgruntled lawmakers.
As Redmond has long since learned, this too, shall pass.
For Google and Yahoo, though, it was a maiden voyage in getting publicly mugged, inside-the-beltway style. They took their beat down politely, though, never conceding an inch. It's all part of the ritual.
First, the big three had to endure almost two hours of inflammatory opening statements by various members of the International Relations subcommittee. When the speechifying for the evening news was done, most of the lawmakers did not hang around to even hear what Microsoft, Google or Yahoo had to say.
Those who did weren't interested, having already made up their minds that the search engine giants were Beijing's lapdogs, valuing profits over principles.
The lawmakers simply were not interested that none of the three has broken any U.S. laws in their dealings with China.
"These captains of industry should have been developing new technologies to bypass the sickening censorship of government and repugnant barriers to the Internet," California Democrat Tom Lantos said. "Instead they enthusiastically volunteered for the Chinese censorship brigade."
Republican Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith of New Jersey accused the tech elite of a "sickening collaboration" with Beijing.
"The appropriate question today is, 'Should business enable the continuation of repressive dictatorships by partnering with a corrupt and cruel secret police and by cooperating with laws that violate basic human rights?'" Smith stated.
Lantos and Smith believe Google has made a fundamental ethical mistake by launching a local version of its search engine to compete with Chinese market leader Baidu.
In order to obtain the rights to do business with Beijing, Google had to agree to blacklist a number of search terms, not the least of which are "democracy" and "human rights in China."
Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president for Global Communications and Public Affairs, carefully explained to the panel that Google does not maintain on Chinese soil any services such as e-mail and blogs that involve personal or confidential user data.
Since the servers are beyond the legal reach of China, Google is under no obligation to comply with a Beijing demand for a user's name.
But, yes, Schrage said, Google does voluntarily self-censor its local Chinese search results in full accordance with Chinese laws.
"We don't pretend that this is the single 'right' answer to the dilemma faced by information companies in China," Schrage said. "We think we have made a reasonable decision, though we cannot be sure it will ultimately be proven to be the best one."
Microsoft associate general counsel Jack Krumholtz told the lawmakers that, "In the end, the legal framework in any particular jurisdiction is not one private companies are in a position to define for ourselves.
"National law and policy set parameters in every country in which we do business, and private companies are required to give them due deference as a condition of engaging in business there."
Not good enough harrumphed Lantos and Smith, mainly to set up the final act in any Capitol Hill industry shaming: the demand for a public apology.
The closest they got was Google's Schrage stating, "We're not ashamed or proud."
What they did get, though, was the object of the exercise all along: Get the ball rolling on search engines voluntarily setting industry best practices for dealing with repressive regimes.
To be sure, lawmakers will introduce bills, but they're not likely to act on them. Instead, they'll merely use any proposed legislation as a pointed threat that Congress will establish some guidelines if Google, Yahoo and Microsoft don't.