|Internet companies are expected to face harsh questioning when U.S. lawmakers begin hearings on Wednesday to examine the role of the Internet and freedom of speech in China.|
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. But companies such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are under fire for bowing to pressure from what free speech advocates call China's censorship regime.
Saria Rees-Roberts is a spokesperson for the rights watchdog group, Amnesty International. "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.
And Yahoo has been singled out by human rights groups for revealing the identity of a Chinese journalist, who was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending pro-democracy e-mail on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Chinese dissident Harry Wu says he's outraged. "It's a dirty business that costs peoples' lives. Their money is built on people's suffering and blood."
But Chinese Internet expert, X.J. Wang says he can't blame companies for wanting a slice of China's lucrative market. "The question is, 'Why not?' It's not, 'Why yes?’ It's, 'Why not? Because they cannot ignore a market everyone is rushing in’."
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. "It's going to be very hard to compete and make money in those markets while holding these ethics that these companies say they hold dear."
Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Yahoo are expected to face tough questions when they testify before U.S. lawmakers. Some have accused the American companies of helping China maintain its restrictive policies.