Search engine giants 'enabling dictatorship'

Key points
• Congress accuses Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft of aiding China's dictators
• Critics cite Yahoo! helping Chinese authorities jail dissident activist
• Firms argue better internet is censored in China than no-one has access

Key quote
"Never [in world history] have so many lines of communication in the hands of so many people been met with such obsessive resistance from a central authority" - Committee to Protect Journalists' survey

AMERICAN computer giants Microsoft, Yahoo!, Cisco and Google yesterday found themselves accused of "enabling dictatorship" in China by a Congressional committee examining whether the companies helped oppress internal dissent in the country in return for access to its booming internet market.

Members of the House international relations sub-committee expressed serious scepticism at what several saw as the companies' efforts to explain their business practices in China only after they suffered recent negative media stories and received greater US government attention.

Representative Tom Lantos, the full committee's senior Democrat, told the company officials that they had amassed great wealth and influence "but apparently very little social responsibility".

"Your abhorrent actions in China are a disgrace," Mr Lantos said at the hearing.

"I simply don't understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night."

Representatives from the companies attempted to defend themselves before the committee hearing, but a Google official acknowledged that working in China's internet market "has been a difficult exercise".

Google's Elliot Schrage said: "The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship - something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company."

Still, he said, Google decided to enter China because it thought it "will make a meaningful, though imperfect, contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China".

Yahoo!'s Michael Callahan testified that "these issues are larger than any one company, or any one industry".

"We appeal to the US government to do all it can to help us provide beneficial services to Chinese citizens lawfully and in a way consistent with our shared values," he said.

James Keith, the state department's senior adviser on east Asia, told the committee that China's efforts to manipulate the internet have increased in the last year, "sending a chilling message to internet users".

China's "effort to regulate the political and religious content of the internet is counter to our interest, to international standards and, we argue, to China's own long-term modernisation goals", Mr Keith said.

US computer companies eyeing opportunities in 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 110 million internet users. But to do business, US companies must satisfy a government that fiercely polices internet content. Filters block objectionable foreign websites; regulations ban what the Chinese consider subversive and pornographic content and require service providers to enforce censorship.

A new survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists calls 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."

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 US companies.

They point to a new Google search engine that censors some results. Yahoo!, they say, recently helped police identify and convict a journalist who had criticised human rights abuses.

Representative Chris Smith, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee on global human rights, said the companies are "enabling dictatorship".

"Co-operation with tyranny should not be embraced for the sake of profits," said Mr Smith.

The businesses that have adopted Chinese internet standards say they must obey local laws. They lack the leverage, they have protested, to influence world governments.

Cisco, which has been accused of providing technology that allows China to filter internet content, testified that it sells the same equipment in China that it does elsewhere.

Robert Dietz, who monitors Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said other repressive regimes are watching closely how the US 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."

Related topics

Trade with China
This article:

Last updated: 16-Feb-06 10:36 GMT