Congressional human rights advocates Wednesday hammered four Internet giants -- Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems -- for helping Chinese authorities censor Web information and crack down on cyber-dissidents and warned that bipartisan legislation to prevent such cooperation could move forward rapidly.
The four companies have found a rapidly growing market in China, where there are now more than 110 million Internet users, second only to the United States. But the Internet industry has been castigated for its reported cooperation with Chinese authorities who have demanded strict controls, including software that detects and filters out such sensitive words or phrases as "democracy," "Dalai Lama,'' "Tiananmen massacre'' and "China torture'' and blocks access to certain chat rooms and bulletin boards.
"These massively successful high-tech companies, which couldn't bring themselves to send their representatives to this meeting today, should be ashamed,'' said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, at a meeting of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
"They caved in to Beijing's demands for the sake of profits, or whatever else they choose to call it,'' Lantos.
The four companies declined invitations to attend Wednesday's caucus meeting, which didn't carry the authority of a formal congressional hearing. Instead, they sent written statements.
Lantos' comments were typical of House members who said they found an unbridgeable paradox between the Internet companies' professed belief in changing the world by fostering development of a freewheeling Internet and their willingness to abide by oppressive regimes' desire to control information and stifle dissent.
"Profit should take a back seat to human rights,'' said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J.
Smith is drafting legislation that would bar U.S. companies from blocking Internet search results anywhere in the world, not just in China. He plans a Feb. 15 hearing on the proposal before the House International Relations subcommittee, which he chairs, and has asked the companies to appear then.
Smith was particularly scornful of Google, which recently launched a http://www.google.cn service for users in China. To illustrate how the site is censored, Smith said he did a search for images after entering the phrase "China torture.'' He said his search yielded two images, neither related to torture in China. But when he did the same search on google.com, he found hundreds of images, available to Web users outside China.
"Google is doing a grave disservice to democracy, human rights and individuals in China who are standing so tall'' in fighting for those causes, Smith said.
Rep. Dana Rorhabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), said his International Relations subcommittee on oversight also will hold hearings on how U.S. corporations in all economic sectors are "furthering the cause of the Chinese Communist dictatorship.''
He called the Internet companies' work with China "another sad chapter in corporate America's dealings with dictatorships.''
China has created "the most sophisticated Internet filtering system in the world,'' said Carolyn Bartholomew, acting chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, whose purview includes human rights in China.
Bartholomew, former chief of staff to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, said at the hearing that the Internet companies are being short-sighted by going along with China.
"I believe there is good reason to fear China may change the Internet more than the Internet will change China,'' she said.
John Palfrey Jr. of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School said a good first step for the companies would be to adopt a voluntary code of ethics that would help them resist government pressure to censor the Internet and turn in dissidents.
He also suggested that as a fallback Congress could adopt a law preventing companies from helping governments' censor the Web. He also suggested that the United Nations take up the issue of Internet freedom.
"The best outcome would be for our technology companies to be able to compete in these marketplaces -- with their best in the world offerings -- without having to compromise our values,'' Palfrey said in his testimony.
In a joint statement to the caucus, Yahoo and Microsoft said they are exploring the voluntary approach and have also spoken to the Bush administration about raising the issue of Internet service directly with Beijing. "Our leverage and ability to influence government policies in various countries is severely limited,'' the companies said.
Google said it is expanding dialogue about the Internet in China both in and out of the country and is interested in an industry-wide set of common principles. It also wants Washington to stress the need for "free expression and open communication'' with China.
"We are not happy about governmental restrictions on access to information, and we hope that over time everyone in the world will come to enjoy full access to information,'' Andrew McLaughlin, Google senior policy counsel, said in the written statement.
Cisco said the routers China uses are same that libraries, schools and companies around the world use to block certain sites for all kinds of reasons. "The equipment we sell in China is the same equipment we sell worldwide -- it is not altered in any way,'' it said.
E-mail Edward Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
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