Three Empty Seats


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.

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