Week in review: Washington wrangling

RSA Conference shares spotlight with politicians, who lashed out at tech giants for complying with Chinese censorship.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
7 min read
Politicians on Capitol Hill ripped tech giants this week for compliance with censorship laws in the growing China market, stealing some of the spotlight from the annual RSA Conference, the big security event held this year in San Jose, Calif.

Despite stated commitments to expanding access to information around the globe, the country's technology giants were bashed by Washington lawmakers at a Wednesday congressional hearing for collaborating with China's "regime of repression" when it comes to censorship.

"What Congress is looking for is real spine and willingness to stand up to the outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime," said Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat and 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."

Lantos' comments relate to several developments over the past few months, such as Microsoft's deletion of a journalist's blog, Yahoo's cooperation in turning over information about a Chinese journalist and Google's censored search service in China.

For their part, the technology companies, including network systems specialist Cisco Systems, said the decision to comply with censorship had been a difficult one that ultimately was justified by the notion that providing limited service to Chinese users was better than providing no service at all.

"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," said Google Vice President Elliot Schrage, replying to the harsh criticism from lawmakers.

Schrage proposed "guidelines that would apply for all countries in which Internet content is subjected to governmental restrictions." But some in Congress are looking at legislation under which nearly every U.S. company with a Web site located in China would have to move elsewhere or face severe penalties at home, including up to a year in prison for executives of noncompliant companies.

A draft version of the bill reviewed by CNET News.com represents the first serious attempt to rewrite the ground rules controlling how U.S. Internet companies may interact with foreign governments. If enacted, the legislation would dramatically change the business practices of corporations with operations in China, Iran, Vietnam and other nations deemed to be overly "Internet-restricting."

Also at Wednesday's hearing, under cross-examination, Yahoo's top lawyer refused to say whether the company opens its records for government surveillance without a court order. Michael Callahan, Yahoo's senior vice president and general counsel, declined five times to answer that question from Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat who was probing whether the Internet company had cooperated with the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance efforts.

CNET News.com readers did some lashing out of their own in response to the news of the hearings on Internet search in China. Many, like Hamlet Khodaverian, criticized politicos for waiting until now to challenge U.S. businesses on their ties with China.

"Hypocrisy. U.S. leaders have been coddling China for years, and now they (attack) U.S. companies for doing exactly the same thing as they have been doing for 20 years?" he wrote. "MS, Google, Yahoo need obey the rules in China if they are going to get market access. It's that simple. It is not their responsibility to change China. This is the responsibility of the U.S. government and the two-faced politicians."

Reader Mark Huard, on the other hand, agreed that while the White House offers few role models for dealing with China, Google and Yahoo should be shamed "for bending so quickly to governments' demands in the name of saving their almighty profits."

"I'm so sick of watching Americans sell out themselves and their countrymen just to get their hands on another greasy buck. But it's pretty easy to see where they got the example...look no further than the White House."

In another politics-related story this week, comedians and left-leaning political pundits opened fire on Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday, sparking enormous chatter among both Republican and Democratic bloggers.

Cheney's accidental shooting of an attorney friend during a quail hunting foray in Texas on Saturday prompted quips from late-night television hosts such as Jon Stewart, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. The jokes offended or delighted audiences, depending on their political loyalties, and skittered around the Web on Tuesday.

Also in Washington, a federal judge criticized Microsoft on Tuesday for what she called "foot dragging" as it takes steps to comply with an antitrust settlement.

And phone companies and cable operators took their fight over video franchising to the nation's capital. On Wednesday, executives on both sides of the debate testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee to explain their positions on changing the current rules, which require video service providers to negotiate franchise agreements with local communities.

Security takes the stage
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates kicked off RSA, the annual security confab, by calling for the end of passwords, something he had set his sights on as the weak link in the computer security chain. With Windows Vista, he feels he finally has the right weapons to supplant the password as a means of verifying who is who on computers and over the Internet.

The new operating system, due later this year, introduces a concept called InfoCard, which is designed to gives users a better way to manage the plethora of Internet login names and passwords, and also lets third parties help in the verification process. Vista will also make it easier to log on to PCs using something stronger than a password alone, such as a smart card.

But before InfoCard can supplant anything, Microsoft will have

to line up Web sites to use it, banks and credit card companies to support it and consumers to buy in. So says Kim Cameron, the Microsoft identity architect who's leading the InfoCard effort.

Cisco Systems Chief Executive John Chambers told the RSA crowd that he's taking a "holistic" approach to security and that corporations should view the network as an integrated system.

The network has evolved from using "pinpoint" security technology to one that integrates a broad range of tools that communicate with each other, he said. That means that security can be coordinated across the entire network, from the worker at a desk to the guts of the system.

Meanwhile, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said the digital divide won't get any smaller until technology companies clean up their security act. And not surprisingly, he offered a remedy that involved some of Sun's pet initiatives. McNealy also rattled off the top 10 security nightmares that could occur.

In other RSA news, FBI Director Robert Mueller said his agency needs more help from private businesses to stay ahead of the curve in the fight on cybercrime. The advent of the information age has made the world smaller and smarter, but the threats have become equally more diverse and dangerous, Mueller said. "We need your help, and we continue to ask for your cooperation," he said.

A panel of security titans and bankers added that privately held companies in the business of protecting information from espionage are attractive to potential buyers.

The panel discussion, held before a standing room-only crowd, addressed the current merger and acquisition environment for security companies, as well as what it takes for them to gain interest from potential buyout candidates.

Symantec and VeriSign executives on Wednesday urged business leaders to protect the digital economy, warning that if online commerce doesn't become more trustworthy, consumers might fall back on old-fashioned purchasing methods.

In other security news this week, a U.K. security expert who devised an application that can "pod slurp," or fill an iPod with business-critical data in a matter of minutes, is urging companies to address the potential for data theft using the application.

Microsoft confirmed the existence of a flaw in its USB 2.0 drivers for Windows XP Service Pack 2 that can cause a notebook to consume power at a faster-than-expected rate when using a peripheral device.

Also, the Electronic Privacy Foundation urged consumers to boycott Google Desktop 3 software, warning that Google could be forced to turn over the data to the government if subpoenaed, even if the data is stored on Google servers only temporarily.

Several large banks and credit unions have replaced about 200,000 debit cards in the wake of a security breach at an unidentified retail chain and at Sam's Stores, owned by Wal-Mart Stores. Multiple law enforcement and banking sources have told CNET News.com that unauthorized charges have shown up on the accounts of many OfficeMax customers, but the company has denied suffering any security breach.

Opening to open source
It was a busy week in open-source news beginning on Tuesday, when Oracle announced at the Open Source Business Conference in San Francisco that it had acquired open-source database company Sleepycat Software for an undisclosed sum.

The database giant said Sleepycat's open-source Berkeley DB database will complement Oracle's existing line of closed-source databases for embedding within applications. The products differ from Oracle's flagship enterprise database software used for general business systems.

Oracle also tried to acquire open-source database maker MySQL, another indication of the profound changes the software giant is willing to make as it adapts to the increasingly significant collaborative programming philosophy.

Also at the conference, an SAP executive said a wave of consolidation is sweeping the information technology industry and that many open-source business applications will be left behind when customers pare down their suppliers.

In other open-source news, Daniel Robbins, the founder and former chief architect of the Gentoo Linux project, has quit his job at Microsoft after only eight months, the software giant has confirmed. He worked under Bill Hilf, who runs Microsoft's Linux and Open Source Software Lab and had an "educational" role within the company.

Microsoft and open-source enterprise applications vendor SugarCRM unveiled a technical collaboration Tuesday, under which Sugar CRM will release its next customer relationship management suite under the Microsoft Community License.

And Integrated Computer Solutions this week announced that it will release to the public what was once secret source code through the Project.net management software it bought Jan. 1.

In other news

The toy industry showcased its newest techie items at the American International Toy Fair...Graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will try to get the flying car aloft...A surprising number of people have found their long-term Valentines in online games...Apple Computer released an update to the Mac operating system that it hopes will alleviate video problems with the first Intel-based Macs...A mad scramble may ensue when the first high-definition DVDs finally hit shelves this spring...Microsoft offered further details on the next version of Office... Advanced Micro Devices cut prices on several Opteron processors as the company prepares to introduce new technology for its server chips...Microsoft launched an attack on the European Commission, accusing it of disregarding evidence and denying due process.