U.S. Internet Execs Testify to Congress on China Dealings

Representatives from Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Cisco Systems testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday about their business practices in China. A panel of human rights activists also appeared, raising concerns about each of the companies' roles in helping the Chinese government censor and monitor the Internet.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In today's business news, internet censorship in China.

Four major U.S. tech companies took a beating in Congress yesterday over their business practices in China. Democrats and Republicans turned a critical eye the role Yahoo, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, and Google played in helping the Chinese government censor and monitor the internet.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Representatives from the four major internet players stood before the House sub-committee on Global Human Rights, and took an oath to tell the truth.

(Soundbite of representatives being sworn in)

Unidentified Man: Do you swear to affirm under penalty…

SYDELL: And the truth was distressing, even to the witnesses. Elliot Schrage, Vice President of Communications at Google, admitted that choosing to offer a censored version of their search engine to comply with Chinese regulations wasn't in keeping with Google's usual mandate to offer open access to information.

Mr. ELLIOT SCHRAGE (Vice President of Communications, Google): Self-censorship, like that which we are now required to perform in China, is something that conflicts deeply with our core principles. We recognize the conflict and the inconsistency.

SYDELL: The others on the panel, representing Microsoft, which censors its blogs, Cisco, which provides routers to the internet's physical hardware, and Yahoo, which has turned over names of dissidents, all seemed unhappy with what they had to do to follow Chinese laws.

But Jack Krumholtz, Associate General Counsel at Microsoft, thinks American technology, even when censored, still provides the Chinese people with the best opportunity to get more information.

Mr. JACK KRUMHOLTZ (Associate General Counsel, Microsoft Corp): The internet has already transformed the economic, cultural, and political landscape of China. It is vital that companies, particularly American companies, with the widest array of communications and information services, continue to offer services there.

SYDELL: However, this was in argument that at least some members of the committee weren't buying.

Congressman TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California): These companies tell us that they will change China. But China has already changed them.

SYDELL: Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos, of California, is a Holocaust survivor. Lantos compared these companies to IBM during the Second World War. Lantos said IBM supplied technology that helped maintain lists of Jews who were sent to the death camps.

Congressman LANTOS: Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.

SYDELL: On the other side of the aisle, Republican Chris Smith, Chair of the sub-committee who called the hearings, reminded the panel of just what kind of regime they were supporting in the People's Republic of China, or PRC.

Congressman CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey): Are you gentlemen aware of just how widespread torture really is in China? Propaganda and secret police are the two main pillars of any dictatorship anywhere in the world, and that includes the PRC.

SYDELL: The representatives from the four internet companies were followed by a panel of Human Rights Activists. The Activists raised concerns about each of the companies, but some particularly damaging evidence was brought against Cisco.

During earlier testimony, Cisco's representative said the company sells the same routers to China that it sells everywhere else. Harry Wu(ph), who survived torture in a Chinese labor camp, held up pamphlets which he says showed they might be the same routers, but they were marketed differently.

Mr. HARRY WU (Human Rights Activist): See there's, here's another document, copyrights of Cisco, How to Train the Chinese Police.

SYDELL: Routers can be used to censor and track traffic on the internet. Wu says Cisco was helping explain to the Chinese police how they could use the routers to censor and monitor. He says there are tens of thousands of internet police in China who imprison Chinese citizens who have been critical of their government online.

Congressman Smith is proposing legislation that would restrict what American tech companies can do in China. But he urged these internet giants to join together to resist the Chinese laws. Smith believes that the Chinese want the best American technology, and will make concessions to get it.

Congressman SMITH: I'm struck by this idea that, well, they'll do it anyway, and they'll have their search engines, yeah, and it'll be much further behind what you have to provide. So, you know, you can negotiate from a position of strength.

SYDELL: The tech companies may not agree with that assessment, but if they don't try to resist the Chinese government voluntarily, they may find Congress creating a new set of rules for them.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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