Hearings to Review Human Rights in China

Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft will be on the Capitol Hill hot seat for their role in helping the Chinese government monitor and censor the Internet. The House International Relations subcommittee on global human rights will hold hearings Wednesday about high-tech firms doing business in China.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on that hearing in Washington that Anthony Kuhn just mentioned. It takes place tomorrow and as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, Google, Yahoo!, Cisco and Microsoft will be on the hot seat for their role in helping the Chinese government monitor and censor the internet.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

For Valentine's Day, a group of protestors decided it would be the perfect time to stage an international breakup with Google.

(Soundbite of Bon Jovi's Shot to the Heart)

SYDELL: A video making its way around the internet was asking people to break off their relationship with Google. The company recently decided to give into Chinese officials and offer a censored version of its search engine called Google.cn. There were also street protests in the U.S. and internationally.

Among those who protested were University of San Francisco undergraduate Dawa Dorje (ph), a Tibetan in exile. Tibet has been occupied by the Chinese for over 50 years. He spoke to NPR while sitting on the campus lawn. Dorje says he is disappointed with Google because of its unofficial corporate motto, don't be evil.

Mr. DAWA DORJE (U.C.S.F. Student): But the fact is that they are deliberately becoming pro-Chinese dictatorship or becoming a Chinese propaganda tool.

SYDELL: Dorje says Google and other American internet companies are helping to strengthen the Chinese government's ever tightening grip on the internet. When he is able to correspond with Tibetans in Tibet, Dorje says his friends there find ways to let him know they can't speak the truth and neither should he.

Mr. DORJE: You don't want that person getting in trouble, so there's always this kind of a kind of signal coming from the other side coming to tell you that, I'm in danger so you must be very careful what you say to me.

SYDELL: Dissidents have gone to prison for ten years for what they've written on the internet. In at least two cases, human rights groups say internet portal Yahoo! appears to have been responsible for turning dissidents' names over to the Chinese authorities. Microsoft has drawn criticism recently, the company took down a blog at the request of the Chinese, and Cisco Systems has been criticized for supplying China with its routers, which the government uses to close off access to certain web sites. Tomorrow Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, is convening a hearing of the sub-committee that oversees global human rights. The topic will be American Internet Companies in China.

Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): They should not be promoting dictatorship. They should not be partnering with the secret police and that's what they're doing in China.

SYDELL: Smith says that he will propose legislation that will put limits on what American internet companies can do. For example, Yahoo! might have to get approval from the U.S. State Department before it can respond to a request for an individual's identity from the Chinese government.

Mary Osako, a spokesperson for Yahoo! doesn't want to comment on legislation she hasn't seen. She says her company isn't necessarily opposed to U.S. Government involvement, but would prefer it coming from the White House.

Ms. MARIE OSAKO (Spokesperson, Yahoo!): The Executive Branch should do this at high level and through multiple channels. For example, we would like to see these issues being raised by the Department of State, the Department of Commerce and the National Security Counsel.

SYDELL: Osako says Yahoo! applauds an announcement today that the Secretary of State is forming a global internet freedom task force to work with other governments on the issue. A push from above without legislation from Congress could work, says Mila Rosenthal, director of the Business Human Rights Program at Amnesty International. Rosenthal says there have been situations in which American companies have banded together, come up with united standards and forced authoritarian governments to do business on their terms.

Mr. MILA ROSENTHAL (Amnesty International): The apparel industry partnership that brought together apparel and footwear companies to try to deal with labor rights violations in their supply chains eventually led to a system of a uniform code and monitoring for the factories that produce a lot of the clothes and shoes that we wear.

SYDELL: But companies may find it much harder to stand up to China on the issue of censorship, says Tim Woo, a professor of law at Columbia University and co-author of the book WHO CONTROLS THE INTERNET? While American companies may have better technology than Chinese corporations, he says keeping a grip on power is even more important to the Communist government.

Mr. TIM WOO (Columbia University): If your condition is, we will not go in here unless we are allowed to offer full access to the Tibetan separation movement, the Chinese answer would clearly be no.

SYDELL: American Internet companies may be feeling the push from Wall Street to get a piece of the growing Chinese market, but Woo says they may have to choose between profits and ethics unless some kind of congressional action makes that choice for them.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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