January 12, 2006 5:37 PM PST

Congress looks askance at firms that bow to China

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 News.com.

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 Google.com 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.

25 comments

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Here's what gets me ...
"It's putting American businesses at a disadvantage in the world marketplace."

It used to be that the United States took a higher moral stance than other countries ... or at least, it tried to. Now it's all about the dollar.
Posted by nasser0000 (64 comments )
Reply Link Flag
That got me, too.
So what if someone else will do it? It doesn't have to be a US company. Being a US company should mean something other than unchecked greed and unprincipled capitalism... although the hypocrisy at work there is well over 200 years old.

We should draw a line in the sand. If your actions as a company directly aid the suppression and repression of people, you are criminally liable in the US. Enough of corporate entities being a shield for greed; hold the CEO accountable... hold their Board accountable. In this country, we don't do that to people.

It's disgusting. It's why Cuba went Communist in the 50's... so why perpetuate it?

-R
Posted by Remo_Williams (488 comments )
Link Flag
But It's OK To...
Criticism from Congress against American businesses doing business with China is disingenuous at best and hypocritical at worst. How many Congress members have gone to work as lobbyists or registered agents for U.S./China trade after leaving office? How many Congress members are criticizing China for buying trillions in U.S. debt, which is keeping our economy afloat? The reality is that without China buying our massive debt, created by a guns-and-butter, sacrifice nothing, chicken-in-every-pot, pork-in-every-barrel budget, we would collapse without them. Face it, we have outsourced our prosperity to China. There is no turning back.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Oh really?
How much longer do you think we can "enjoy" YOUR "prosperity", with the way we're screwing with our environment and each other? What you've outsourced is a pittance compared with the netural resources and clean environment you've saved! As to those responsible for the catastrophic consequences that are going to happen to my country, they will simply take all money away and be harbored and protected in YOUR country by YOUR politicians. YOUR govn. knows this clearly and is expecting it. You will see what i mean by then. And I'd better hope this web site will NOT give my identity away as well.
Posted by Vin Zh (8 comments )
Link Flag
One more thing
Oh, One more thing I need to add...
When the responsibles flee to YOUR country, YOU even get that pittance-prosperity BACK. You don't really think they've poured all that money into the millitary or social insurance fund, do you? In fact, they put most of it into their own pockets. And YOU can easily squeeze it out of them by offering "protection" in return. What a good deal! So be proactive in granting them visas!
Posted by Vin Zh (8 comments )
Link Flag
The way to correct this is $$$
The heart of the matter is we now rely on Asian goods. W@lm@rt and other companies sell nearly 90% merchandise produced in these countries. We are paying for them to develope into major world players while they continue to (pardon the term) brainwash their people that we are the "demons of the west".
If we should boycott their goods when something like this happens it would change theis approach.
Posted by chhooks (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Wait...
There are a LOT of things Made In China, not just the stuff that's at Wally World. If we were to boycott everything that said Made In China, our economy would be crippled, wouldn't it?
Posted by Stez (16 comments )
Link Flag
Microsoft destroys free press in China, makes Apple's '1984' add come true
Microsoft recently, at the mere request of a Chinese government official. Deleted the blog of a journalist based in China.

This blog was located on U.S. Soil.

This blog was read by U.S. Citizens (as well as Chinese Citizens).

This blog contained NEWSWORTHY, useful, wholesome, information, honest information.

As such it was protected by the U.S. Constitution.

This blog did not violate any laws, in China or in the world.

This blog contained public information on the suppressive and illegal activities of the Chinese government.

This blog was protected by the U.S. constitution. As it was located on U.S. soil and read by U.S. readers.

This blog could well have been useful to many people around the world (not just China).

Microsoft is partnering with the Chinese government to eliminate the free press in China.

We know the name of Big Brother, his name is Bill.
Posted by Jake Leone (143 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What about every one less
This is just nuts. How on earth can the goverment be attaching internet companies when other sector of the US econnomy have been linning the pocket of dictaros arround the world for years. The oil companies for years have been fueling the on going wars in africa inorder to secure oil rights. The clothing industry as been exploting what can only be called slave labor in asia and other parts of the world. You don't see congress preventing this compains form doing bussiness there. And they want to pass these types of laws at a time when the US goverment thanks to Bush is sensoring and violating US citizens right to privacy. Just resently being exposed for scanning and reading e-mail sent over the net, tapping phones without a court approval. In prisoning would be terroist without hearings or lawers.

Now I am not saying china is right however they have the right to run their country as they see fit preventing US compainies from doing bussiness will only hurt the changes already starting to take place in china. Capitalism is becoming more and more the chines way of life and with it will come changes in their human rights activities.
Posted by aburt46 (21 comments )
Reply Link Flag
None of those companies
should be allowed to continue doing business the way they are. If we can't stop them from using scurvy business practices overseas we should ban them from doing business here. Bush should be tried for treason and hanged on the White House lawn. Our businesses over 'following their laws' are not promoting human rights or helping that cause. They ar hindering it with a bad example and would be squandering ou moral capital if we had any left.
Posted by Michael Grogan (308 comments )
Link Flag
Legal enforcing criminal activity
If the Chinese regime enact legistlation of censorship, then isn't US legistlation just trying to force companies to break the law in China ? As bad as the (China) regime is, if it enacts a law, "that's a law".

And where do the Feds get the cojones to try to legistlate activities in other countries ? Next they'll be passing a law to make it illegal to smoke in public in Cuba, or something.
Posted by (409 comments )
Reply Link Flag
At the same time...
At the same time that nothing can or should be done about US
companies enforcing Chinese censorship, exactly the opposite
conclusion is reached in the case of the French complaint of ebay's
Nazi paraphernalia being made available in France; they hadn't
even demanded the site be shut down, but only that it be made
unavailable to web surfers in France.
So which way DO we want it?
Posted by (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
correction...
Oops, not Ebay, but Yahoo in the French case, sorry.
Posted by (3 comments )
Link Flag
So Declan - what's the difference between
"Court dismisses Yahoo's free-speech lawsuit" story & "Congress looks askance at firms that bow to China" ? I see you wrote (or contributed to) both.
Posted by (409 comments )
Reply Link Flag
it's their right
to choose to do business this way...

and it's the rights of American voters to decide that WE choose to punish those companies that choose this. Will this 'hamper' American companies? In the short run maybe because they now can't count on all that chinese money... but in the long run perhaps it would fare better for them in the hearts and minds of the chinese people if they refuse to participate in their oppression.

We 'punish' foreign governments for such things... let's not say we can't hold OUR OWN corporations to the same standard.
Posted by The user with no name (259 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why are US companies scared of China ???
Why are global corporations scared of China ??
GM's car designs are blatantly copied and they do nothing.

Now, UK gambling sites locate their servers outsite the US and offer their services to US residents when gambling on these websites is clearly prohibitted in America.

US banks and brokerages like Goldman Sachs etcare also investing money in such companies.

If these companies can show the fing*r to the US Govt, why can't they do the same in China ???
Posted by pskale (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
The hypocrisy in promoting Free Speech by US government officials
Isn't it funny that the US Court of Appeals refuses to deal with Yahoo's Free Speech lawsuit, while at the same time the government is criticising Microsoft(MSN) and Google for complying with Chinese censorship regulations?
Posted by bdennis410 (175 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Our government is littered with hypocrites!
Yes, it's very funny, and even though you didn't use my exact words, you took the words right out of my mouth.
Posted by casper2004 (267 comments )
Link Flag
Use business as a weapon
If business (exports) are so important to the many repressive regimes that the US does business with, why not restrict or eliminate imports from these places, or use our dollars to encourage more accomodating behavior?
Posted by bdennis410 (175 comments )
Reply Link Flag
control line
one more example of one government seeking to control the actions of another while shifting the focus away from it's primary intent. The more they can get you to focus on what your neighbour is up to, the less you'll notice them going through your stuff.
Of course this is all for your own protection. :-)
Posted by aqvanavt (17 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You might get sued, but it would be worth it!
That's when you set booby traps in and around the home.
Posted by casper2004 (267 comments )
Link Flag
Chinese Censorship
To defeat the censors it seems all a citizen would have to do is substitute words/key phrases - like instead of China use USA; instead of "democracy" use "capitalistic pig". A tried and true method once the shorthand is known by all. Or let's have MS, Yahoo, Google et all do the substitution themselves. They're well practiced in the art it seems.
Posted by sparafucilli (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Put your money where your mouth is.
I have known of Microsofts intent for years. I am not fooled by their philanthrophy, similiar to the tobacco industry. If you are not just spouting hot air then stop using windows. Buy Macintosh or use Linux. I do, you don't so really stop complaining or step up to the plate.
Posted by brianeliel (1 comment )
Link Flag
 

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