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Tech companies brace for showdown over China

Yahoo, Google, others could face thorny questioning from lawmakers seeking to limit cooperation with restrictive regimes.

Technology companies accused of collaborating with China's Internet censorship regime are bracing for what could be a tough round of questioning from politicians this week.

Executives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems plan to testify about reports of their cooperation with Chinese requests before a U.S. House of Representatives human rights subcommittee on Wednesday morning.

Citing scheduling conflicts, none of those companies showed up at a briefing earlier this month. Their absence drew criticism from members of the informal congressional caucus that requested--but didn't have the power to compel--their attendance.

Yahoo on Monday issued a new document describing its general stance toward what it deemed "challenges" posed by its global ventures. Numbering less than two pages, the statement is short on specifics. It frames the company's priorities as a struggle between increasing global access to information on one hand and feeling obligated to adhere to local laws on the other.

"We are deeply concerned by efforts of governments to restrict and control open access to information and communication," the statement said. "We also firmly believe the continued presence and engagement of companies like Yahoo is a powerful force in promoting openness and reform."

The company drew renewed criticism late last week from media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, which said that Yahoo had turned over electronic personal records leading to a Chinesecyberdissident's conviction and eight-year prison sentence in 2003.

Yahoo said at the time that it couldn't comment because it was unaware of the situation described, emphasizing that it hands over only information it is legally compelled to provide.

Monday's document puts that pledge in writing, saying Yahoo will "continue to employ rigorous procedural protections under applicable laws" when approached for information. It also says "if we are required to restrict search results, we will strive to achieve maximum transparency to the user," a reference to evidence that it, Google and Microsoft's MSN have tailored their Chinese search engines to comply with that government's wishes.

Yahoo said it plans to explore possible policy routes by organizing discussions with interested representatives from the tech industry, the government, academia and nongovernmental organizations. But the company emphasized that it's up to the U.S. government to be the final broker of favorable policies with such regimes.

"Our goal is to help drive the discussion between us companies that face these challenges and appealing to our government to do all it can to help us continue providing services we know benefit China's citizens and to do so in a way consistent with our beliefs and values," Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osaka said Monday.

The Net companies haven't yet specified what they think the best policy solution would be--or whether they agree with politicians who have called for a legislative remedy.

The budding congressional interest, however, has already prompted several of the companies to amplify their public stances on the topic.

Microsoft, for instance, revised its policy on censoring the blogs it hosts in the fallout over its removal of a Chinese journalist's MSN Spaces site.

All of the companies that skipped the first briefing later outlining their positions and encouraging U.S. government involvement in the situation. Google, Cisco and Microsoft said they didn't plan to issue additional position statements in advance of the hearing in the way Yahoo did.

Wednesday's hearing may represent the last formal chance for the companies to weigh in on such an approach. Rep. Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, is drafting a bill that his office said could be introduced as soon as next week.

Spokesman Brad Dayspring said a full draft bill would not be released before the bill's formal introduction. But according to a summary provided by his office, Smith intends to propose at least four major changes: requiring companies to locate their e-mail servers outside of companies or markets deemed repressive by the Department of State; establishing a basic code of conduct for companies operating in such areas; setting export controls on "certain technologies" to countries restricting free speech; and creating an Office of Global Internet Freedom at the State Department to coordinate a global strategy.

The House subcommittee is also slated to hear from two State Department officials and representatives from Radio Free Asia, the University of California's China Internet Project, the China Information Center, a Virginia-based Internet publication, and Reporters Without Borders.