U.S. technology giants face lawmakers' questions over role in China's Internet

Wednesday, February 15th 2006, 8:43 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Four U.S. Internet companies eager for a foothold in China face hard questions from lawmakers worried that the communist regime is using American technology to crush political dissent.

Rep. Chris Smith said Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Google Inc. are ``enabling dictatorship'' by helping China censor the Internet.

``Cooperation with tyranny should not be embraced for the sake of profits,'' said Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on global human rights.

Smith was among several lawmakers from both political parties who said they would use a congressional hearing Wednesday to convey their qualms to executives of the four companies, which have drawn strong criticism for their operations in China.

U.S. tech companies eyeing China face a dilemma, analysts say: While keen to tap a market that could soon eclipse America's, they must also worry about the perception they're helping China harass dissidents.

``They are in an extremely dicey position,'' said John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor who studies the Internet.

The potential for profit is great. China is estimated to have more than 100 million Internet users.

But to do business, U.S. companies must satisfy a government that fiercely polices Internet content. Filters block objectionable foreign Web sites and regulations ban what the Chinese consider subversive and pornographic content, requiring service providers to enforce censorship.

A survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists called China's efforts to control its media ``unique in the world's history.''

``Never have so many lines of communication in the hands of so many people been met with such obsessive resistance from a central authority,'' the report said.

China says its aims are benign _ to protect its citizens, and especially children, from ``the immoral and harmful content'' of the Internet.

Critics say the limits China imposes go further and are aided by U.S. companies. They point to a new Google search engine that censors some results. Yahoo!, they say, helped police identify and convict a journalist who had criticized human rights abuses.

U.S. businesses that have adopted Chinese Internet standards say they must obey local laws. They lack the leverage, they say, to influence world governments.

Lawmakers and observers have a different view.

``The hugely successful businesses that come before Congress ... will have to account for their complicity in China's culture of repression, and to begin to make amends,'' Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said Tuesday.

Robert Dietz, who monitors Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said other repressive regimes are closely watching the way the U.S. Internet companies act in China. What happens with China's Internet, he said, probably will serve as a model elsewhere.

``We sense that people are standing back, watching the technology evolve, watching the attitude evolve, seeing how far countries can go in pushing their ... Internet censorship,'' he said. ``We don't think this will end in China.''