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Politicians lash out at tech firms over China

House members say they're "sickened" by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco's relationship with Chinese government.

Politicians lashed out at U.S. Internet companies on Wednesday, accusing them of collaborating with China's "regime of repression" and pledging to enact a law soon to make such cooperation illegal.

During a House of Representatives hearing, members of Congress offered repeated condemnations of Google, Yahoo, Cisco Systems and Microsoft that were the most antagonistic so far in an ongoing dispute about how U.S.-based companies can offer services in China while protecting the free speech and privacy of Chinese users.

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Video: Lantos blasts tech giants
During a House of Representatives hearing, congressman calls Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft "agents of repression."

"This value-free excuse truly sickens me," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, who accused the four corporations of a "nauseating collaboration with a regime of repression."

"What Congress is looking for is real spine and willingness to stand up to the outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime," added Lantos, 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."

Over the last few months, public scrutiny of China's state-mandated censorship has grown thanks to developments such as Microsoft deleting a journalist's blog, Yahoo turning over information about a Chinese journalist, and Google offering a censored Chinese search service.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, said legislation is being drafted to prevent U.S.-based employees of any company "from turning over confidential information to a repressive government...unless our government certifies that that information is being requested for a legitimate criminal investigation for a nonpolitical crime."

Representatives of technology companies were not given an opportunity to respond to the criticism until nearly three hours had elapsed since the hearing began, at 7 a.m. PT. The discussion among politicians had also veered repeatedly toward topics such as communism and President Bush's domestic surveillance plan using the National Security Agency.

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Microsoft lobbyist Jack Krumholtz said his employer is willing to withdraw services when they "completely compromise the value to customers" in that region.

But, said Krumholtz, who is Microsoft's director of federal government affairs, even China's censorship efforts leave valuable information available to its Internet users. So, he said, "based on grounds of human rights and freedom of expression alone, Microsoft believes that we should continue to provide our Internet-enabled services in China."

Rep. Christopher Smith of New Jersey, the Republican chairman of the human-rights subcommittee, likened cooperating with China's ruling Communist Party to aiding Adolf Hitler and Germany's Nazi party during the Second World War.

During the Holocaust, Smith said, Jews were "marched off to incredible precision and the trains did run on time to the gas chambers," thanks to punched-card technology originating in the United States. Smith said that such a precedent should encourage Yahoo to "move out and disengage" from China.

Yahoo general counsel Michael Callahan acknowledged that the Shi Tao case, in which Yahoo China turned over information that led to the journalist being sent to prison for 10 years, raised "profound and troubling questions."

Callahan said, however, that Yahoo was "unaware of the particular facts" about the case, such as Shi's identity and occupation, until news reports surfaced. Also, the company is an investor in and does not have day-to-day control of Yahoo China, which is run by Alibaba.com, he said.

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Video: Microsoft and blog-censorship
Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's associate general counsel, talks about blog censorship on MSN.

"When we receive a demand from law enforcement authorized under the law of the country in which we operate, we must comply," Callahan said. "This is a real example of why this issue is bigger than any one company and any one industry. All companies must respond in the same way."

Yahoo and the other companies who testified said they're working together on an industry-wide approach to demands by the Chinese government. Google Vice President Elliot Schrage said that the search giant is exploring "guidelines that would apply for all countries in which Internet content is subjected to governmental restrictions."

Those could, Schrage said, include public disclosure of the type of censorship requests received and best practices for protecting customer data--perhaps by storing it on servers in the U.S. instead of locally. (Google has chosen not to offer versions of Gmail or Blogger on servers physically located in China.)

Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based free-speech group that sent a representative to testify, has called for legislation instead of voluntary codes of conduct. It says that search engines must not "be allowed to incorporate automatic filters" deleting words such as "democracy" or "human rights" and that technology companies must not be allowed to sell equipment designed to monitor Internet users without U.S. government permission. Mark Chandler, a vice president and general counsel of Cisco Systems, said that his company does not sell or customize Internet-filtering products it sells in China. Rather, Chandler said, the same router configuration options typically used to block pornographic or denial-of-service attacks can also be used to cordon off political sites.

"We build to open, global standards," Chandler said. "We do not design custom or closed Internet systems."

The only politician to raise even a mild objection to the hours of attacks on Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco was Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat who represents the Seattle suburbs near Tacoma, Wash. The blame should be directed at the Chinese government, Smith said, and "lashing out at the companies that are enabling this is a little absurd."

Name-calling and Nazi comparisons

Name-calling proved a popular pursuit during the marathon hearing, which lasted more than seven hours, though most of the audience had trickled out after the technology executives left around 1 p.m. PST.

China hearing
Credit: U.S. House of Representatives
Tech representatives are sworn in
during a congressional hearing
on Internet censorship in China.

In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman Smith criticized Google for operating a Chinese search engine that not only blocks certain sites but links users to "disinformation" on political topics. Evoking the company's "Don't Be Evil" motto, he said bluntly that the company has instead "become evil's accomplice."

"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," Schrage, Google's vice president, replied.

Google also drew the ire of Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican who called the search giant a "functionary of the Chinese government" after a long line of questioning about the company's tactics in restricting search results returned by its google.cn site.

"In the future, when you type the word 'oxymoron' in a search engine, you'll find the names of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco," Lantos quipped.

The congressional questioning also revealed fundamental differences among the way the companies run their Chinese operations.

Yahoo was the only one of the four firms that said it has e-mail servers physically located in China. When pressed by Smith to reveal how many requests it has received for customer information, Yahoo's Callahan said such records are kept at a local subsidiary, which means they're "prohibited from being disclosed under Chinese law because they are demands from Chinese law enforcement." (See related story: Yahoo under pressure over NSA surveillance.)

Microsoft, whose servers for its Chinese operations reside in the United States, said the U.S. Justice Department is typically involved in requests for personal information on behalf of foreign governments, "and we would follow their orders if they determine we should provide that information."

Cisco and Google, on the other hand, said they have no access to personal information about their customers in China.

Amid the name calling and pointed questioning, a few of Democrats expressed skepticism toward what they perceived as potential "knee-jerk" attempts at government intervention.

"The Chinese government, with some 4,000 years of history, has not always been amendable to being hit with a crowbar by United States Congress," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat. "I think we have to be surgical and careful about what we do so it's not counterproductive."

Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, also suggested that the government may be misdirecting its blame--if not verging on hypocrisy. "Freedom is not just pointing fingers at American companies when we said we wanted them to be in China," he said.

Underlying some of those remarks, however, was a strong current of economic protectionism. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and frequent critic of free trade said "we gave China 'most favored nation' trading status an the President signed it."

Instead of berating technology executives, Wexler said, Congress should blame itself. "We should be asking, 'Are we ashamed of the United States Congress, of what the United States government has done?" he asked.