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Congress looks askance at firms that bow to China

U.S. politicians vow to punish companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo, believed to cooperate with China censorship.

After hearing reports that American tech giants like Microsoft and Yahoo are abiding by Chinese law mandating Internet censorship, some irritated U.S. politicians are threatening to pass laws restricting such cooperation.

Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said Thursday that the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Human Rights, which he heads, will hold a hearing in early to mid- February. Smith has invited representatives from the U.S. State Department, Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, Google, and the international watchdog group Reporters Without Borders to speak.

The effort is designed to determine what can be done, either by legislative mandate or on a voluntary basis, to "dissociate a company from working hand-in-glove with a dictatorship," Smith said in a telephone interview with CNET

A similar hearing is planned for Feb. 1 in the Congressional Human Rights Caucus said Ryan Keating, communications director for Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat leading the parallel effort. The caucus, unlike the human rights subcommittee, is an "informal" committee that is overseen by about 30 House members and includes a few hundred others, Smith among them, as supporting members.

As first reported by the Boston Globe, both Ryan and Smith are in the process of concocting new laws. These will likely take cues from recommendations issued by Reporters Without Borders and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a 12-member, congressionally-selected governmental panel.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders this week backed a law banning an American company from hosting an e-mail server in any "repressive" country. It's also suggested that American corporations come up with a joint plan for how to handle censorship requests from foreign governments, including refusal to censor terms like "democracy" and "human rights."

The companies have defended their decisions by saying that, as multinational corporations, they had no choice but to comply with Chinese mandates.

Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osaka said the company must adhere to local laws in all countries where it operates, though it recognizes that there are "unique and inherent challenges to doing business in China."

Google representative Debbie Frost said that: "We are mindful that governments wherever we do business around the world impose restrictions on access to information and of course we are obliged by law to follow them."

Frost added that Google is a relatively new entrant to China and values user interests and access to information. "The experience for users in China searching on has not been changed by Google in any way," she said.

Cisco has been accused of building technology that allows Chinese officials to filter sites. "Our routers have embedded technology in them that allows network administrators to manage their networks," said John Earnhardt, the company's senior manager for policy communications, acknowledging that "this technology can be used to block access to sites they don't want users to access." But the same features are present in routers regardless of the country in which they are sold, he noted.

According to the China security review commission, China operates one of the world's most sophisticated Net filtration systems, targeting comments viewed as threats to the Chinese Communist Party's tenets while letting anti-U.S. and antidemocracy sites stand. The country's Web-using contingent has grown exponentially, reaching 103 million in June 2005. It also offers the world's second-largest Internet market.

Meanwhile, "U.S. companies continue to play an active role in China's Internet censorship, providing hardware, software and content filtering services," the commission said in its 2005 annual report to Congress. "While these interactions between U.S. corporations and China's government may be legitimate commercial decisions, in sum they had the effect of helping to build and legitimize the government's media censorship efforts."

Last week, Microsoft admitted to removing a blog from its MSN Spaces service that was kept by a Chinese journalist who allegedly voiced antigovernment sentiments. The company has also been accused of blocking words like "democracy" and "freedom" on its MSN site.

In September, Reporters Without Borders blamed Yahoo for handing Chinese officials a personal e-mail message linked to Chinese journalist Shi Tao's account that contained what the government considered a "state secret." Tao was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"We balance legal requirements against our strong belief that our long-term involvement in China contributes to the continued modernization of the country through the advancement of communications, commerce as well as access to information created by our products and services," Yahoo spokeswoman Osaka said.

Reporters Without Borders has also accused Google of blocking news items--that have garnered government disapproval--from its Google News China site. A company representative denied such activity Thursday.

"Some sources were not included because their sites are inaccessible and therefore their inclusion does not provide a good experience for our news users who are looking for information," the representative said.

"There is no democracy in Beijing--it's not a democracy, and they have a very, very poor human rights record on a myriad of fronts," said Smith, who has conducted 25 hearings about Chinese human rights issues since taking office in 1981. "I think you have to ask the question: Is this money worth it? At what cost? People going to prison for 10 years...that to me, that's just not worth it."

Critics of Smith's proposal for new laws have likened it to Canada or the European Union banning their companies from doing business in the U.S. because of the antiprivacy rules found in the Patriot Act. Some Canadian advocacy groups and labor unions have been opposing outsourcing of work to the U.S. because of privacy concerns.

"If Yahoo isn't doing business in China, someone else will," said Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at the free-market Pacific Research Institute. "It's putting American businesses at a disadvantage in the world marketplace." Arrison suggested that instead U.S. companies join together to present a unified front to the Chinese government.

Smith said there's reason to worry about other countries as well. He recently traveled to Vietnam, where he had an emotional meeting with the family of a man serving a 13-year prison sentence. His crime? Translating an American document about democracy that he had downloaded from the Web.

U.S. companies should want no part in such behavior, he said: "The crime, I would submit, is committed by the countries themselves."

Earlier proposals in Congress have included creating an Office of Global Internet Freedom inside the federal government to come up with ways to thwart Net-censorship by other nations.

Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment.