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Thursday, February 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big Internet companies grilled on China stance

Medill News Service

WASHINGTON — Facing stinging accusations that they are abetting human-rights violations and censorship in China, several technology giants told a congressional hearing Wednesday they are doing more good than harm in helping promote free expression in a repressive nation.

The response came as representatives of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco Systems faced grilling by lawmakers from both parties about the demands the Chinese government has made on the companies, and the type of information they provided to Beijing.

The hearing followed several high-profile instances over the past several months in which online rights collided with Chinese government policies, with U.S. companies at the center of disputes.

In one case, Yahoo! provided the Chinese government with information that led to a crackdown on Chinese dissidents and journalists, prompting lawmakers at Wednesday's hearing to compare the activities of the major technology companies in China with IBM's collusion with the Nazi regime in World War II Germany.

Google has drawn criticism for bowing to Chinese demands that it block searches for politically sensitive terms such as "Tiananmen Square" and "human-rights China." Microsoft has come under fire for taking down a blog critical of the government.

One lawmaker minced no words in addressing the companies. "Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night," Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., whose district includes the Silicon Valley, admonished executives from the four major technology companies.

The executives said their presence in China gives Chinese Internet users more information and said they would discuss developing a set of industry standards to deal with the situation.

"The Internet is a positive force in China," said Yahoo! General Counsel Michael Callahan. "The issues are bigger than any one company or any one industry."

Microsoft Associate General Counsel Jack Krumholtz said the company is "deeply troubled" by the restrictions Chinese law places on its operations. But, he added, "The simple fact is that there is not a government in the world, including the United States, which would accept the proposition that companies can set their own terms of operation in defiance of local law."

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the subcommittee before which the executives testified, plans to introduce the Global Online Freedom Act.

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The bill would establish industry standards to regulate hardware and software exports that governments can use to censor content on the Internet.

The bill, which Smith said he intends to introduce in the next few days, would also:

• Require Internet companies to locate outside of any country deemed repressive.

• Prohibit them from altering products that would yield different search results in different countries when certain terms — such as "human rights" are searched.

• Bar Internet companies from blocking U.S.-supported Web sites, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

• Force Internet companies to provide a list to a new Office of Global Internet Freedom of all information a foreign government wants to censor.

• Prohibit Internet companies from releasing information to certain governments that could identify an Internet user, except for "legitimate law enforcement purposes."

• Allow individuals, regardless of citizenship, to sue companies in U.S. courts for damages.

Businesses that violate the act would risk fines up to $2 million for providing personally identifying information and potential criminal penalties.

Microsoft spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said in an e-mail that the company would not comment because it hasn't seen a draft of Smith's proposal.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, a member of the subcommittee, said legislation that restricts the ability of U.S. technology companies to operate in China is unlikely to help advance freedom of expression there, because other companies will be waiting to take their place.

Adam Smith said there was one area in which he was interested in seeing the government pursue action.

"To the extent that American companies are selling technology specifically used to track and repress people, that I'm concerned about," he said in a telephone interview. He noted that based on the testimony at the hearing, it doesn't appear the four companies were doing that.

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