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Logging On in China

Mil ArcegaChris Simkins

The Chinese market has become so attractive to Internet companies that critics say these companies are sacrificing fundamental rights of privacy and freedom of speech in order to win approval by the Chinese government.  Those concerns prompted hearings in Washington, D.C. this week by American lawmakers, who want to examine the role of the Internet in china. VOA’s Mil Arcega and Chris Simkins have looked into this issue.  Chris Simkins has our report.

Members of Congress grilled leaders of four major technology companies, accusing them of cooperating with Chinese officials to censor the Internet and crush dissent in return for access to its booming Internet market. Representatives from Microsoft, Yahoo, Cisco Systems and Google faced harsh questioning from lawmakers from both political parties at the hearing of a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee.

Republican Party Congressman Jim Leach accused the Internet firms of cooperation with the Chinese government to block access to Web sites that Beijing objects to in return for allowing them to make money in the country. "I think you just have affirmed a novelty in American commerce: worst practices you've studied and adopted. That is an astonishing circumstance -- and for a government…. And so if this Congress wanted to learn how to censor, we go to you."

Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of global communications, said his company's decision to censor its Chinese search engine was a difficult one. "This was not something we did enthusiastically, or not something we're proud of at all. Secondly, we are taking steps that others have not taken, at the very least, make people inside China and those outside China aware of the detail and extent of the filtering that we are required to impose".

Information technology companies are scrambling to gain access to China and its nearly 200 million Internet users -- even if it means restricting the flow of information.

Saria Rees-Roberts is a spokesperson for the rights watchdog group, Amnesty International. She says, "It brings up a whole issue of freedom of expression, and this is the latest in a string of examples of global internet companies who are caving into pressure from the Chinese government and censoring their internet sites in one way or the other."

Google's site for example, omits search results about human rights, Tibet, and other topics that are deemed to be sensitive by Beijing.  Instead, users are directed to government-approved websites.

In China Thursday, government officials defended the country's Internet censorship policies, saying they are fully in line with international norms and practices. China also denied detaining people simply for writing online.

Yahoo officials acknowledge that the company's compliance with Chinese law has led to "serious and distressing" consequences, but says it can't tackle the problem on its own.

Although some U.S. companies have been doing business with oppressive regimes for years, it's new for Internet companies who profit from an industry built on the free exchange of information.

John Palfrey is head of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society says competition in those markets will be tough. "It's going to be very, very hard to compete and make money in those markets while holding these ethics that these companies say they hold dear."

Some have accused the American companies of helping China maintain its restrictive policies.

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