Week in review: Washington wrangling

RSA Conference shares spotlight with politicians, who lashed out at tech giants for complying with Chinese censorship.

Politicians on Capitol Hill ripped tech giants this week for compliance with censorship laws in the growing China market, stealing some of the spotlight from the annual RSA Conference, the big security event held this year in San Jose, Calif.

Despite stated commitments to expanding access to information around the globe, the country's technology giants were bashed by Washington lawmakers at a Wednesday congressional hearing for collaborating with China's "regime of repression" when it comes to censorship.

"What Congress is looking for is real spine and willingness to stand up to the outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and the co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. Chinese dissidents are "in the Chinese gulag because Yahoo chose to reveal their identities to the Chinese government."

Lantos' comments relate to several developments over the past few months, such as Microsoft's deletion of a journalist's blog, Yahoo's cooperation in turning over information about a Chinese journalist and Google's censored search service in China.

For their part, the technology companies, including network systems specialist Cisco Systems, said the decision to comply with censorship had been a difficult one that ultimately was justified by the notion that providing limited service to Chinese users was better than providing no service at all.

"Is a half-truth better than no truth? Is it better to have results that are misleading than to have no results at all? That is a very appropriate question to ask and one I don't have an answer for you today," said Google Vice President Elliot Schrage, replying to the harsh criticism from lawmakers.

Schrage proposed "guidelines that would apply for all countries in which Internet content is subjected to governmental restrictions." But some in Congress are looking at legislation under which nearly every U.S. company with a Web site located in China would have to move elsewhere or face severe penalties at home, including up to a year in prison for executives of noncompliant companies.

A draft version of the bill reviewed by CNET News.com represents the first serious attempt to rewrite the ground rules controlling how U.S. Internet companies may interact with foreign governments. If enacted, the legislation would dramatically change the business practices of corporations with operations in China, Iran, Vietnam and other nations deemed to be overly "Internet-restricting."

Also at Wednesday's hearing, under cross-examination, Yahoo's top lawyer refused to say whether the company opens its records for government surveillance without a court order. Michael Callahan, Yahoo's senior vice president and general counsel, declined five times to answer that question from Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who was probing whether the Internet company had cooperated with the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance efforts.

CNET News.com readers did some lashing out of their own in response to the news of the hearings on Internet search in China. Many, like Hamlet Khodaverian, criticized politicos for waiting until now to challenge U.S. businesses on their ties with China.

"Hypocrisy. U.S. leaders have been coddling China for years, and now they (attack) U.S. companies for doing exactly the same thing as they have been doing for 20 years?" he wrote. "MS, Google, Yahoo need obey the rules in China if they are going to get market access. It's that simple. It is not their responsibility to change China. This is the responsibility of the U.S. government and the two-faced politicians."

Reader Mark Huard, on the other hand, agreed that while the White House offers few role models for dealing with China, Google and Yahoo should be shamed "for bending so quickly to governments' demands in the name of saving their almighty profits."

"I'm so sick of watching Americans sell out themselves and their countrymen just to get their hands on another greasy buck. But it's pretty easy to see where they got the example...look no further than the White House."

In another politics-related story this week, comedians and left-leaning political pundits opened fire on Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday, sparking enormous chatter among both Republican and Democratic bloggers.

Cheney's accidental shooting of an attorney friend during a quail hunting foray in Texas on Saturday prompted quips from late-night television hosts such as Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. The jokes offended or delighted audiences, depending on their political loyalties, and skittered around the Web on Tuesday.

Also in Washington, a federal judge criticized Microsoft on Tuesday for what she called "foot dragging" as it takes steps to comply with an antitrust settlement.

And phone companies and cable operators took their fight over video franchising to the nation's capital. On Wednesday, executives on both sides of the debate testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee to explain their positions on changing the current rules, which require video service providers to negotiate franchise agreements with local communities.

Security takes the stage
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates kicked off RSA, the , by calling for the end of passwords, something he had set his sights on as the weak link in the computer security chain. With Windows Vista, he feels he finally has the right weapons to supplant the password as a means of verifying who is who on computers and over the Internet.

The new operating system, due later this year, introduces a concept called InfoCard, which is designed to gives users a better way to manage the plethora of Internet login names and passwords, and also lets third parties help in the verification process. Vista will also make it easier to log on to PCs using something stronger than a password alone, such as a smart card.

But before InfoCard can supplant anything, Microsoft will have

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