January 27, 2006
U.S. Tech Firms that Abet China Censors Face Scrutiny
WASHINGTON -- Google Inc's decision to block politically sensitive terms on its new Chinese search site has drawn the scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers, who next month will probe American technology companies that help Beijing's censors.
Representatives from Google and other Internet companies have been called to a Congressional Human Rights Caucus hearing on Wednesday and to a February 16 session of the House of Representatives subcommittee on Global Human Rights.
The hearings follow Google's announcement on Tuesday that the company would block taboo terms in China such as democracy, Tibet, Falun Gong, and not offer e-mail, chat and Web log (blog) publishing services that could be used for political protest.
The moves by lawmakers come as Internet experts are evaluating the effectiveness of the self-censorship, which one Chinese blogger called Google's "eunuch version" -- a reference to the emasculated palace servants of historic China.
Human Rights Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, has invited Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco, as well as State Department officials and press freedom watchdog groups to the Feb 16. hearing, he said in a statement.
Smith, a frequent critic of China's human rights practices, seized on Google's corporate motto, "Don't be evil," saying in a statement that the firm "would enable evil by cooperating with China's censorship policies just to make a buck."
Smith told Reuters: "The question is not whether companies should be promoting democracy. The real question is should they partner with the secret police in cracking down on dissidents and enabling human rights abuses?"
CODE OF CONDUCT
Freedom of speech advocates, who have been critical of U.S. companies that have compromised with Chinese authorities, are pressing for U.S. legislation establishing a code of conduct for Internet companies working in countries deemed repressive in annual U.S. State Department human rights reports.
"Our lobbying within the United States is calling for a bipartisan effort to support us in getting the legislation passed," said Tala Dowlatshahi, the New York representative of Reporters Without Borders, a France-based watchdog group.
She said the group was also pressing shareholder groups of those companies to insist on upholding "ethics, principles and universal standards" enshrined in the Geneva Convention.
The legislation envisioned by Reporters Without Borders was spelled out in a January 6 online campaign calls on U.S. firms to refrain from hosting e-mail servers, filtering search engines, hosting blogs and discussion forums in repressive countries.
The proposal would either ban U.S. firms from selling Internet censorship software to repressive states or force them to make censorship of some terms impossible.
It would also require firms to get Department of Commerce permission to sell Internet censorship equipment or conduct related training in countries deemed repressive by the State Department.
In Davos, Switzerland on Wednesday, Google co-founder Sergey Brin told Reuters that China's government had already been censoring the search engine.
The decision to block sensitive terms on the China site "is not something I enjoy," Brin said, "but I think it was a reasonable decision."