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Congressman quizzes Net companies on shame

In tense exchange with a Holocaust survivor now in Congress, techs say they're not ashamed of censoring Chinese Net users.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
When the U.S. House of Representatives convened a hearing on Wednesday to talk about China and the Internet, it quickly devolved into an exercise in political speechmaking.

Not until nearly halfway through the event did any of the technology executives receive a chance to respond to a rapid-fire series of condemnations.

One exchange, though, with Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, stood out. Lantos, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, quizzed executives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems not about technical or legal details--but about their view of the morality of cooperating with China's ruling Communist Party. Lantos, a Budapest-born Jew who represents the southwest quadrant of San Francisco, is the only member of Congress who is a Holocaust survivor.

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For their part, the four technology companies said compliance with censorship has been a difficult decision, but ultimately the cost of doing business in China and being able to provide even limited services to Chinese users. Google's German operation censors Nazi-related Web sites from search results. Microsoft pointed out that the U.S. Justice Department has prosecuted people involved in offshore gambling even when the casino site is in a location where it's perfectly legal. And the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has required Google to censor search results in the United States.

Following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of Lantos' exchange with Microsoft lobbyist Jack Krumholtz; Yahoo general counsel Michael Callahan; Google Vice President Elliot Schrage; and Mark Chandler, a vice president and general counsel of Cisco. (See related video excerpts.)

Rep. Tom Lantos: Can you say in English that you're ashamed of what your company and what the other companies have done?

Google: Congressman, I actually can't, I don't think it's fair for us to say that we're ashamed.

Lantos: You have nothing to be ashamed of?

Google: I am not ashamed of it, and I am not proud of it...We have taken a path, we have begun on a path, we have done a path that...will ultimately benefit all the users in China. If we determined, congressman, as a result of changing circumstances or as a result of the implementation of the Google.cn program that we are not achieving those results then we will assess our performance, our ability to achieve those goals, and whether to remain in the market.

Lantos, to Cisco: Is your company ashamed?

Cisco: (Begins to talk about products that Cisco sells.)

Lantos: Just answer me directly. The totality of the things that you and the other three companies have done, are you proud of it or are you ashamed of it?

Cisco: The products we provide in China are identical to the products we provide worldwide...What we have done is followed very closely the policies of our government, which are informed by human rights concerns and have been for 30 years now, in terms of providing what products are appropriate and not appropriate to provide to China and which users.

Lantos: I am asking a direct question. Is there anything you have done in the whole period you operated in China that the company ought to be ashamed of?

Cisco: We think that is a positive thing that we do throughout the world including China...My answer is I feel that our engagement is consistent with our government's goals.

Lantos, to Microsoft: Is your company ashamed?

Microsoft: We comply with legally binding orders whether it's here in the U.S. or China.

Lantos: Well, IBM complied with legal orders when they cooperated with Nazi Germany. Those were legal orders under the Nazi German system...Do you think that IBM during that period had something to be ashamed of?

Microsoft: I can't speak to that. I'm not familiar in detail with IBM's activities in that period.

Lantos: You heard (Rep. Christopher Smith's) speech (click for PDF). Assuming that his words are accurate, is IBM to be ashamed of their action during that period?

Microsoft: Congressman, I don't think it's my position to say whether IBM should be ashamed.

Lantos, to Yahoo: Are you ashamed?

Yahoo: We are very distressed about the consequences of having to comply with Chinese law...We are certainly troubled by that and we look forward to working with our peers.

Lantos: Do you think that individuals or families have been negatively impacted by some of the activities we have been told, like being in prison for 10 years? Have any of the companies reached out to these families and asked if you could be of any help to them?

Yahoo: We have expressed our condemnation of the prosecution of this person, expressed our views to the Chinese government...We have approached the Chinese government on these issues.

Lantos: Have you reached out to the family? I can ask it 10 more times if you refuse to answer it. You are under oath.

Yahoo: We have not reached out to the families.

Microsoft: In the five cases where Microsoft has removed sites at MSN Spaces in China (not one involves) anyone being incarcerated, so I'm not aware of any families for us to reach out to.

Lantos, to Microsoft: Have the families been adversely affected?

Microsoft: Not to my knowledge.

Lantos: You have done a lot of work to prepare for this hearing; you wish this hearing had never taken place, we all understand that...Have you explored (contacting the families)? Have you taken the trouble? Have you reached out to the families that may have been adversely affected?

Microsoft: With respect to the blogger whose content was taken down on Dec. 30, we returned his content to him because that was his intellectual property.

Lantos, to Google: I'm asking you a direct question (about families)--I don't want your philosophy.

Google: We don't offer a service that puts anyone in that situation, and the best way we honor their situation is to ensure that we are not associated with a similar situation. We don't offer products that would put us in a position of putting people like that in danger.

CNET News.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.