The four technology companiesthat they were not able to schedule an appearance with short notice but would testify at a similar House of Representatives hearing scheduled for Feb. 15.
"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, the California Democrat who is co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which organized the briefing.
"With all their power and influence, wealth and high visibility, they neglected to commit to the kind of positive action that human rights activists in China take every day," Lantos went on. "They caved in to Beijing's demands for the sake of profits, or whatever else they choose to call it."
Because his caucus is not an actual congressional committee, it does not have the power to compel companies to testify at its hearings. The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, which plans to convene a Feb. 15 hearing on the topic, does have that force.
Rep. Christopher Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the subcommittee holding the Feb. 15 hearing, showed up late at Wednesday's briefing to issue a reminder that he and his colleagues are working on a draft legislation related to the foreign censorship matter.
"Our request to these companies is: Reverse yourselves; you can," he said.
A draft of the legislation was not ready Wednesday. But Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Smith, said the proposal would likely require American Internet service providers to locate their e-mail servers outside of oppressive countries, establish a code of conduct for companies doing business with such regimes and set up a global Internet freedom office within the State Department to coordinate an international strategy.
Cisco, for its part, distributed a statement at Tuesday's briefing confirming its attendance at Smith's upcoming hearing. The company acknowledged again that it sells its routers in China but that their inherent features, including the ability to filter content, are no different from those sold in any other country, including the United States.
Yahoo and Microsoft in which they encouraged the U.S. government to step up and take a leadership role in opening "government to government" dialogues with China and other countries "where Internet content is treated more restrictively." Google's senior policy counsel, Andrew McLaughlin, echoed that idea in a blog entry and apologized for Google's absence, which he owed to "previously scheduled commitments."
The absence of the tech companies left Wednesday's briefing heavy on commentary from human rights activists and a representative from a U.S.-China governmental advisory panel.
Several of those representatives accused each of the firms of squelching cyberdissidents or caving into the Chinese government in some way. Google, which launched alast week, was a particular magnet for criticism.
The search giant's "current cooperation with the Chinese government on this matter also has prevented the Chinese government from having to respond to complaints from Chinese Internet users that they are being denied access to the info they wish to obtain," said Carolyn Bartholomew, acting chairwoman of the congressionally appointed U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. She said China has the most sophisticated Internet-filtering system in the world and tens of thousands of "Internet police" on its payroll.
Bartholemew and several of the human rights representatives called for new legislation that would penalize companies that aided in censorship activities--an idea that had Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, the briefing's chief organizer, nodding in agreement.
At the very least, Congress needs to pass legislation that would prohibit companies from turning over customer names to the Chinese government, Tim Malinowski of Human Rights Watch argued. He was referring largely to a recent incident in which Yahoo was accused ofbelonging to a Chinese journalist, leading to his conviction for leaking state secrets and a decadelong prison sentence.
John Palfrey, director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, cautioned that new laws should only come into play if the technology industry can't work out the problems on its own.
Instead, he argued, Congress should encourage the industry to develop a set of guiding principles for companies--what he called a "common ethical pathway."
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat who sits on the human rights caucus, appeared briefly to appeal to the absentee firms.
"This may be a time for a principle stand, because when you make a principle stand now, today, tomorrow the world will be open to so many who are now suffering under the oppression of censorship," she said. "So I would encourage my friends in the world of technology...that this is the time to cherish the Bill of Rights more than you've ever cherished it before."