RealTime IT News

Lawmakers Hammer Tech's China Policy

WASHINGTON -- The nation's leading technology companies were lectured and hectored today by lawmakers accusing them of collaborating with Chinese censors.

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco sat through almost two hours of opening statements - almost all them blisteringly critical of the Internet powerhouses -- by a House subcommittee on human rights.

And that was before the lawmakers even began to ask questions, most of which turned out to be pointed and insulting.

"American technology and know-how is substantially enabling repressive regimes in China and elsewhere in the world to cruelly exploit and abuse their own citizens," Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said.

"U.S. companies like Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens."

All four companies have come under intense fire over the last few weeks for their activities in China. Yahoo is known to have turned over the name of at least one cyber dissident to Beijing who subsequently was jailed.

Microsoft recently pulled a blog - at the request of the Chinese government - critical of Beijing. Google agreed to Chinese censorship requirements in return for operating a local Chinese search engine. Cisco sells the majority of routers and switches in China.

All claim they are simply complying with the laws of a country they do business with.

"Instead of using their power and creativity to bring openness and free speech to China, they have caved in to Beijing's outrageous but predictable demands simply for the sake of profits," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said.

"My message to these companies today is simple: Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night."

Lantos added that the four companies need to show more "virtual backbone. What Congress is looking for is real spine and a willingness to stand up to the outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime."

Smith said he plans to introduce legislation in a few days to bar U.S. employees from turning over identifying information to a "repressive" government and to require Internet companies doing business with Beijing to locate their servers outside of China.

Smith also likened the tech giants' cooperation with Beijing to IBM's alleged ties with Nazi Germany, which were recently cited in the book IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black.

"Thanks to IBM's enabling technologies, from programs for identification and cataloging to the use of IBM's punch card technology, Hitler and the Third Reich were able to automate the genocide of the Jews," Smith said.

"U.S. technology companies today are engaged in a similar sickening collaboration, decapitating the voice of the dissidents."

When finally given a chance to respond to the lawmakers' broadsides, Yahoo in particular moved to defend its actions in turning over Chinese dissident Shi Tao's name to Beijing.

"When Yahoo! China in Beijing was required to provide information about the user, who we later learned was Shi Tao, we had no information about the nature of the investigation," Yahoo general counsel Michael Callahan said. "Indeed, we were unaware of the particular facts surrounding this case until the news story emerged."

Callahan added: "Failure to comply in China could have subjected Yahoo! China and its employees to criminal charges, including imprisonment. Ultimately, U.S. companies in China face a choice: comply with Chinese law, or leave."

The Shi Tao case, he said, was "distressing to our company, our employees and our leadership."

Microsoft came close to a mea culpa when explaining how it came to shutting down a blog on MSN Spaces highly critical of Beijing.

"The details of that case have been carefully reviewed, and although we do not think we could have changed the Chinese government's determination to block this particular site, we regret having to do so," Jack Krumholtz, associate general counsel for Microsoft said.

"We have since clarified the manner in which we will deal with similar requests in the future."

Elliot Schrage, vice president for global communications and public affairs at Google, testified he understood that "many are puzzled or upset by our decision" to launch a local Chinese version of Google, complete with censorship.

"Figuring out how to do deal with China has been a difficult exercise for Google," he said. "The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship -- something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company."

Nevertheless, Schrage said, Google went ahead based on a "judgment that Google.cn will make a meaningful - though imperfect - contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China."

Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler steadfastly insisted that his company "does not customize, or develop specialized or unique filtering capabilities, in order to enable different regimes to block access to information."

None of the answers satisfied Lantos, who pointedly asked each company: "Can you say in English you are ashamed of what you've done?"

Only Google's Schrage came close to an answer: "We're not ashamed or proud."