Under oath and under pressure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2006, 12:00am

Yahoo, Cisco, Google and Microsoft squirm as the American public questions their self-censorship policies in the mainland

More than 50 years have passed since IBM supplied the Nazis with the cataloguing programs and punchcard technology needed for the Holocaust, yet the political implications of one of America's best-known corporations aiding and abetting genocide remain visible even today.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems were accused last week of transporting IBM's European legacy to China, helping the government to suppress human rights through self-censorship and assisting the arrest and imprisonment of mainland citizens.

'Women and men are going to the gulag and being tortured as a direct result of information handed over to Chinese officials,' said Republican Congressman Christopher Smith, referring to Yahoo's decision to give user data to the government, which aided the arrest and conviction of journalist Shi Tao.

'I believe that two of the most essential pillars that prop up totalitarian regimes are the secret police and propaganda. Yet for the sake of market share and profits, leading US companies such as Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens,' Mr Smith said.

The widely anticipated meeting convened by the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations followed intense public criticism of the companies after a series of incidents highlighted the ethical compromise involved in running internet businesses in China.

Court papers revealed Yahoo had a hand in the imprisonment of cyber-dissident Li Zhi, in addition to Shi Tao. Microsoft came under fire for removing a blog that Beijing deemed politically sensitive, while Google launched a censored search engine for mainland users that blocks sites containing words like 'democracy' and references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Cisco has long been accused of selling network equipment used by the mainland government for its so-called Policenet, an elaborate system that allegedly gives the police direct access to a citizen's internet history and e-mail.

'Can you say, in plain English, that you are ashamed of what you and the other companies have done?' California Democrat and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos asked the companies.

It did not seem so.

But the companies' statements in recent weeks reveal a shift of strategy in what is becoming a serious public relations disaster with the potential to damage not only reputations but also share prices.

Yahoo acknowledged the 'horrible and disturbing' consequences of its actions, in contrast to previous remorseless assertions that 'to operate in China means to comply with Chinese laws'.

Google vice-president for global communications and public affairs, Elliot Schrage, said the decision to compromise on the 'most basic values and commitments as a company ... [was] not something we did enthusiastically or something we are proud of at all'.

But for all the political grandstanding and corporate grovelling last week, it remains unclear what has really changed.

Following the hearing, Mr Smith circulated draft legislation that would 'prohibit any United States business from co-operating with officials of internet-restricting countries in effecting political censorship of online content'.

The Global Online Freedom Act would prevent US companies from keeping servers containing internet search and user data in countries such as China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the information is at greater risk of being subpoenaed by repressive governments, while also providing for foreign internet users victimised by US internet companies to seek punitive damages in US courts.

If passed, the legislation will have serious consequences for the firms' ability to compete in China. The prohibition on servers, for example, cuts to the heart of how the likes of Yahoo got themselves in trouble in the first place - their decision to deploy servers inside China was aimed directly at competing with domestic firms such as, and without being hampered by China's Great Firewall.

'Our search results were being filtered, our service was being crippled, our users were flocking to local Chinese alternatives, and, ultimately, Chinese internet users had less access to information than they would have had,' Google's Mr Schrage said.

US newspapers over the weekend gave the bill scant chance of passing in its present form, but that does not mean the problem is likely to go away soon.

Companies such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo argue that complying with mainland laws is better for mainland internet users than boycotting the market altogether - that a slimmed down, censored service a la is a 'lesser evil' than providing no service at all and that regulations are more likely to be relaxed with their participation than without. But as Congressman James Leach pointed out, the argument fails if the companies themselves do nothing to force principles of freedom of expression with Beijing.

'By pre-emptively altering their online products to conform to the predilections of Chinese censors, those companies may be diluting the liberalising pressure created by the desire of the Chinese people to use their original, unaltered products,' he said.

In reality, mainland internet users will not lose out if US firms withdraw. Their services are already matched by local companies that show no discomfort with self-censorship and government demands for information.

'We are very co-operative with the authorities,' said chief executive Jack Ma, when asked about Yahoo's Shi Tao scandal.

The real reason US firms want to stay in China has little to do with exporting freedom of expression and everything to do with the country's 111 million internet users. Yet with the exception of Cisco, whose mainland revenue is estimated at US$500 million annually, the foreigners have largely struggled to gain a foothold in a market dominated by domestic players.

The fact that US firms arguably need China more than China needs them only adds to the impasse in Washington.

For all its rhetoric last week, Congress is unlikely to cede a potentially huge market to mainland companies by imposing debilitating restrictions on US firms. Equally, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco are unlikely to pack up on their own accord, no matter the volume of protest at home.

Ironically, the helping hand may come from China itself.

Last week, a group of former senior officials joined a public declaration of support for the suspended Bingdian Weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily.

Meanwhile, 13 leading intellectuals also expressed concern about the curtailment of the basic right to freedom of speech in an open letter to President Hu Jintao.

At the same time, the State Council Information Office's Internet Affairs Bureau was telling reporters unconvincingly that 'no one in the mainland has been arrested simply because he or she said something on the internet'.

Yahoo, Google and their US rivals and partners in crime will be hoping these latest events prove more than a minor blip in China's iron rule over the media and freedom of expression.

It may be their only way off the hook at home.