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'Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace'

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The US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations yesterday angrily rounded on Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! in a widely-anticipated attack on their relationships with Beijing, Reuters reports.

Democrat Tom Lantos summed up the mood with: "Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night."

The controversy centres around Chinese state censorship and the four companies' stance on it. Google and Yahoo! have recently attracted much negative publicity - the former for agreeing to censor results in its Chinese search engine, the latter for supplying details to the authorities on two "dissidents" - Li Zhi and Shi Tao - who were subsequently jailed.

To underline the issue, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher at the hearing presented Yuan Li - a US citizen who writes for a website "critical of the Chinese government" and who was beaten up in his Atlanta apartment - presumably as a result.

Rohrabacher told the assembled executives: "You have to choose between Mr Lee [sic] and a gangster regime."

Yahoo! Senior Vice President Michael Callahan agreed the Shi Tao matter "raises profound and troubling questions about basic human rights", but insisted that his company had "made our views clearly known to the Chinese government".

Google Vice President Elliot Schrage offered: "The requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship - something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company." He added that Google's Chinese search engine "respects the content restrictions imposed by Chinese laws and regulations".

Microsoft lobbyist Jack Krumholtz, in response to Landos' enquiry as to whether his company was ashamed of its actions, echoed Google's justification with: "We comply with legally binding orders whether it's here in the US or China."

Lantos countered: "Well, IBM complied with legal orders when they cooperated with Nazi Germany. Those were legal orders under the Nazi German system... Do you think that IBM during that period had something to be ashamed of?"

Krumholtz admitted: "I can't speak to that. I'm not familiar in detail with IBM's activities in that period."

Lantos was, ultimately, unconvinced by claims that US corporate muscle could exert a positive force for change. "These companies tell us that they will change China, but China has already changed them," he said.

The Republican chairman of the committee, New Jersey's Chris Smith, then announced his intention to introduce a bill this week which would "formalise the goals of a new State Department task force to help American technology companies protect freedom of expression in countries that censor online content".

The bill, Smith explained, would include "export controls on certain types of hardware and software and prohibit putting email servers and other assets in countries that lack US-style due process laws." ®

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