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Senators weigh new laws over China online censorship

Silicon Valley execs once again forced to justify their business practices in China and other Internet-censoring countries, with Cisco taking the hot seat over new allegations of cozier-than-confessed ties with the Chinese police.

Senators Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) discuss their concerns about Internet censorship by foreign countries, including China. Chinese authorities serve up the cartoon cops (pictured here) on its citizens' screens from time to time as reminders that they're being monitored. Anne Broache/CNET

WASHINGTON--Senators on Tuesday pressed executives from Yahoo, Google, and Cisco Systems to justify their business practices in China and other Internet-censoring countries, with Cisco in the hot seat over new allegations of cozier-than-confessed ties with the Chinese police.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who led the morning hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee's human rights panel, said he is actively considering whether to draft new legislation that, similar to a , would place a host of new restrictions on American companies doing business in Internet-restricting countries.

Durbin said he appreciates the efforts of American companies to promote free expression in otherwise oppressive countries but believes some are falling short on those pledges.

"Perhaps it's time for Congress to consider converting this moral obligation into a legal obligation," he said.

Still, the event lacked the pervasive finger pointing and name calling that punctuated two previous hearings about similar topics in the House of Representatives during the past two years.

Durbin set the tone for the less antagonistic hearing, which lasted barely two hours and counted only three politicians present at its most crowded, by saying up front: "This is not a black and white issue, and this is not an easy issue. U.S. technology companies face difficult challenges when dealing with oppressive governments."

Cisco and China: Censorship collaborators?
Two human rights activists present at the hearing, however, said it's clear that the companies aren't doing nearly enough to resist demands that they censor their services and called for new legislation to address that issue.

Cisco general counsel Mark Chanlder listens to Shiyu Zhou, a Chinese human rights activist, after Tuesday's hearing. Zhou says internal documents show Cisco has been assisting the Chinese government's censorship aims, which the company denies. Anne Broache/CNET

Although Yahoo has arguably faced the most protracted scrutiny from politicians at previous hearings, Cisco endured the bulk of the questions this time.

A portion of the hearing focused on a 2002 internal Cisco presentation, which was provided to the subcommittee by Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of a group called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, which creates technological tools designed to circumvent censors. In Zhou's view, the 90 PowerPoint slides, which Cisco says were produced by a lower-level Chinese employee working in China, suggest the company assisted the Chinese government in meeting its censorship aims, although Cisco vehemently denied those allegations.

The slides--a translated copy of which was provided to CNET descriptions of the Chinese government's so-called "Golden Shield Project," which is responsible for operating China's "great firewall." One slide lists one of the project's main objectives as monitoring and controlling the Internet to combat the "Falun Gong evil cult," a spiritual practice that the Chinese government has persecuted.

Another slide lists planning, construction, technical training, and maintenance as "opportunities" for Cisco, which Zhou argues "flatly rebut(s) Cisco's repeated and self-serving claims" that it has sold the same generic routers and other equipment to China as to any other government and does not in any way assist with its censorship goals. Zhou said he provided the subcommittee just before the hearing with another presentation that offers additional evidence to that effect.

Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler attempted to defuse those allegations, saying he was "appalled" to see the anti-Falun Gong line included in the presentation. He denied once again that his company has participated in any way in the Chinese government's censorship activities, saying Cisco does not customize its equipment to meet those aims.

"We disavow the implication that this (presentation) in any way reflects Cisco's views," Chandler told the committee.

Durbin called the presentation "troubling" and asked Chandler to explain what policies Cisco has in place to make sure its employees don't cooperate with foreign censors.

Chandler said the company has an "extensive written code of conduct," and "employees who would customize our products in such a way as to undermine human rights would not be consistent with the code of conduct." He added that Cisco isn't sure exactly what devices the Chinese government uses to monitor and filter its network but believes the Chinese government itself has devised those tools.

An industry code of conduct
As they have done in the past, executives from Google, Yahoo, and Cisco each defended their current practices, saying they have no choice but to comply with the law in the countries where they operate. But, on the whole, they said they firmly believe the presence of their technologies does more good for the people of the countries who can access it, even if it's used in a restrictive way, than would the utter absence of their services.

"It isn't perfect, as we know, that but we do think that something about being there is right," Google deputy general counsel Nicole Wong told the subcommittee.

"When you are asked to be complicit through your companies in restricting the flow of information for the public good and the public health, aren't your hands a little dirty at the end of the day if you participate in that?"
--Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)

Durbin voiced some skepticism about that argument. "When you are asked to be complicit through your companies in restricting the flow of information for the public good and the public health, aren't your hands a little dirty at the end of the day if you participate in that?" he asked the companies.

As Durbin sees it, there are two areas of concern: when companies censor information, such as search results, based on government requests; and when they turn over private information about subscribers in response to government requests related to activities that wouldn't be illegal in the United States.

The Illinois Democrat cited Google and Yahoo's censorship of search results on their Chinese search engines, as required by Chinese officials, and grilled Yahoo deputy general counsel Michael Samway over Yahoo China's decision a few years ago to turn over information about dissident writer Shi Tao that led to his imprisonment.. (Yahoo, for the record, currently owns a minority stake in Yahoo China.) Rather than hinting more closely at what sort of legislation he has in mind, Durbin stuck to asking broad questions.

"Should we declare it wrong for an American company to in any way cooperate with censorship and repression?" Durbin asked.

Wong, Chandler, and Samway each reiterated their calls for additional help from the government, whether through trade negotiations or new legislation, to protect their operations in countries where legal standards differ dramatically.

They also pointed to their efforts during the past 18 months to begin working out a solution on their own, by devising industry standards for dealing with such countries, in conjunction with human rights organizations, socially responsible investors, and academics. The companies said agreement is on the way, although a Human Rights Watch representative, Arvind Ganesan, seemed somewhat less optimistic about the companies' willingness to have their overseas practices monitored by a third party, as human rights activists have proposed.

Durbin questioned why the code of conduct hasn't been completed sooner, challenged each of the representatives present "to no longer tolerate the delay," and warned that Congress would be monitoring their progress closely.

"I hope within the next 48 hours we'll have an announcement," Durbin said, referring to the code of conduct. "That would be terrific."