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Tech Industry

The China Internet debate's going nowhere

CNET's Charles Cooper says too many interested parties have a stake in maintaining the status quo.

As far as Washington drama goes, this didn't rise to the level of the Army-McCarthy hearings.

But the stern lecture delivered to the technology industry during a House hearing on the Internet in China earlier this week underscored the futility of this increasingly stale debate.

Congress ostensibly called the hearing to learn how U.S. tech companies were helping China to censor Internet access. The real purpose was (a) to grandstand, (b) to pressure the companies into changing their policies, and (c) to grandstand. (Did I already mention that?)

The hearings offered a prime-time stage for China bashing. Beijing's communist regime is always an easy mark for populist politicians looking to score points with the folks in the home district, and a lot of that went on. But it was also the first time that representatives from Yahoo, Google and Microsoft (Cisco was there as a bit player) were forced to depart from the script and offer straight answers to the public.

Fact is, these folks are in quite a bind. Living in the real world involves compromises. And when it comes to China, they've obviously been compromising away--something their dainty PR offices have assiduously attempted to hide. No longer. Microsoft has taken down blogs, Google has restricted certain search terms and Yahoo has provided information the authorities used to track down dissidents.

Google's Elliot Schrage summed it up for the House panel this way: "In an imperfect world, we had to make an imperfect choice."

That was the only breath of fresh air during an otherwise unctuous performance by the invited panelists. It took an afternoon of browbeating before they stopped shucking and jiving and owned up to the rules of engagement their companies had all submitted to.

Watching the cybergentry sweat made for a fun afternoon, but more important is what comes next. The administration has proposed something it grandiloquently called the Global Internet Freedom Task Force. The idea is to reduce government efforts to censor information.

Sounds impressive, though I'm not sure how this is going to work in practice. I can't envision Washington pushing especially hard. China flows billions of dollars into the U.S. economy each year, buying bonds that pay for our domestic spending spree. Tick off the Chinese and there's always the danger they'll retaliate by closing the spigot.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are involved in a delicate campaign to nudge China to establish a more flexible foreign exchange rate policy. Going into this, the Chinese are bound to be irritable because an upcoming U.S. Treasury Department is shortly expected to report that Beijing has been manipulating the Yuan. You think George Bush is going to jeopardize a successful resolution of the negotiations in order to guarantee Internet freedom in China? Besides, this administration gets distracted when the subject turns to cyber-related topics. Just look at the five years' worth of backburner treatment it's given network security.

Representative Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican and one of the more sober voices in Congress, was especially uneasy about the prospect of American companies blocking American voices. He's right to be concerned. If the government allows Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to determine economic policy, nobody should be surprised by what gets decided.