February 13, 2006

US Internet giants will come under unprecedented grilling in Congress this week for joining hands with China to censor the Internet, despite the proud American tradition of free speech.

Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems have all agreed to appear on Wednesday before a House of Representatives human rights panel, which summoned them following public outcry over their compliance with Beijing.

By complying with China's demand for censorship in order to enter the booming Chinese market, some of the top American Internet firms in essence have become "a megaphone for communist propaganda and a tool for controlling public opinion," said Chris Smith, who will co-chair the hearing.

The Republican Representative from New Jersey, who heads the House subcommittee on global human rights and international operations, is drafting legislation imposing curbs on Internet companies seeking to expand into China.

"I think a lot of members will be supportive of the legislation," Smith's spokesman Brad Dayspring told AFP.

Some lawmakers accused the American firms of helping Beijing build the "Great Firewall of China."

"Our message to the Chinese is, 'When you build a wall to oppress your people, can we sell you some bricks?'" said Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who introduced legislation last week to downgrade US trade ties with China.

This is the first time the companies will testify at Capitol Hill over the muzzling of Internet information in China. Two weeks ago, they snubbed a Congressional caucus meeting, which had no subpoena power.

State Department officials have also been summoned to explain Washington's stand on the issue at the one-day hearing, entitled "The Internet in China: "A tool for freedom or suppression?"

Search giant Google and top computer software maker Microsoft have both admitted cooperating with Beijing to censor websites.

Leading portal operator Yahoo allegedly assisted Beijing authorities to track down and jail a journalist and cyber dissident, while Cisco's technology-savvy machinery is reportedly used to censor Internet messages and track down cyber dissidents.

The companies have defended their decisions as being for the public good [...]

"At the very least, the presence of American Web companies irritates the Chinese government, because it places its political tactics on public display," he said.

The Congressional hearing could set the pace for legislation compelling Internet companies to locate e-mail servers outside "repressive countries" and prohibit the export of Internet technology to these countries.

"The hearing is going to give Internet companies a chance to testify before Congressman Smith puts the final touches to the legislation," Dayspring said.