WASHINGTON — Internet giants Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Cisco were accused yesterday at congressional hearings of greedily collaborating with China's efforts to control Internet access and to track down dissidents.
"Your abhorrent actions in China are a disgrace," said Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California. As senior executives from the four Internet companies visibly squirmed, Mr. Lantos -- the only Holocaust survivor in the House of Representatives -- reminded them that International Business Machines had helped count Jews for the Nazis.
Yahoo, in particular has been singled out for co-operating with Chinese police, handing over information that led to the identification and imprisonment of at least two dissidents. Michael Callahan, general counsel for the company, said, "We were legally obligated to comply." Yahoo provided electronic records to Chinese authorities that led to an eight-year prison sentence for writer Li Zhi in 2003.
Yahoo was also accused of helping Chinese authorities finger Shi Tao, who was accused of leaking state secrets and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Mr. Callahan said Yahoo didn't realize people would go to jail. But like top executives from the other companies, Mr. Callahan insisted that staying engaged in China is better for human rights than pulling out.
The companies' representatives said shunning China over its human-rights record would be even worse. "It's better for Microsoft and other Internet companies to be engaged," said Jack Krumholtz, that company's general counsel. "The benefits outweigh the downside."
Most committee members seemed unconvinced, as did other witnesses who testified yesterday. In his prepared testimony, Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at Berkeley, said: "It has become painfully clear to the American public in recent months that some of this country's leading information technology companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco, who are here today, have, to differing degrees, aided or complied with China's Internet-censorship policies, in order to gain a presence in the lucrative China market." China's cyberpoliceapparently monitor the Internet in near-real time.
"A friend of mine recently tried to access some politically sensitive websites while at an Internet café in a remote, small city in Xinjiang province," said Harry Wu, a former political prisoner. "The police quickly showed up to arrest him. I don't know who supplied the technology enabling the police to track my friend's Internet surfing, but I am pretty sure that U.S. technology was involved."
Shame, and a pox on all their houses. I am all for free trade among free men and women, but “free” is the operative word. I am always suspicious of the soft diplomacy stance whereby the justification for trading with brutal regimes that routinely violate human rights is that we will somehow influence the regimes to mend their ways and they so rarely do. If anything, all to often it allows regimes access to new tools to cause harm. Cuba hasn’t become a human rights haven and they are still jailing musicians, gays, internet users and librarians, despite almost decades long periods of uninterrupted trade with Canada. Iran has been shopping and buying Canadian since 1990 but I have yet to see the kinder, gentler face or side of Iran emerge. Just exactly how long does it take?