Google's change of heart on China draws attention from Congress

Yesterday afternoon, citing what it described as "cyber attacks" -- incursions into its own systems it said originated from China -- Google said it would review its business arrangement with the government of China that enables it to operate a search engine under the domain name The company said it believes the alleged attackers were searching for information on Chinese human rights activists.

This morning, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged that Google had briefed the State Dept. on these attacks, prior to yesterday's announcement. Though the extent of those briefings were not divulged, they could represent a break of the unofficial embargo the company has imposed on any news of its business dealings with the Chinese government, since their initial agreement was reached in late 2005. Now, Rep. Tim Ryan (D - Ohio), one of the congressmen who had led the unsuccessful effort to compel Google -- along with other American Internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, and Cisco -- to explain the nature of its business arrangements with China, tells Betanews this afternoon that Google may have had this coming.

"Four years ago, I hosted a briefing on Internet freedom in China before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, which is now the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission. An invitation was extended to Google executives, so that they might explain their rationale for launching a censored domestic version of Google in China. That invitation was declined," Rep. Ryan told Betanews in response to our request for a statement earlier today.

"China has one of the most sophisticated content-filtering Internet regimes in the world. Chinese authorities rely upon the resources, cooperation, and technology of American companies -- including Google -- to carry out basic human rights violations including the suppression of free speech and free press. The Chinese government has done everything in its power to deny its citizens the freedom of the Internet: monitoring all information, deleting phrases like 'Dalai Lama,' 'Tiananmen Square massacre,' 'democracy,' and 'Voice of America' from Web sites, and utilizing routers that block banned sites altogether."

At the time Google commenced its business relationships with China, Congress began questioning whether it was abiding by US rules regarding the disclosure of personal information by private agencies to foreign governments. Though it was not subpoenaed to appear before Congress, Google's representatives, along with those of Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco, declined to appear, sending letters of explanation instead. I covered the Congressional hearings for TG Daily, which no longer archives material from 2006, otherwise I would provide the usual requisite hyperlink. Nevertheless, here is what I published at the time:

"The launch last week of the censored Chinese Google Web site," remarked Caucus co-chair Tom Lantos (D - California), "is only the latest sign that even companies that make strong and impressive corporate claims, such as Google's motto, 'Don't Be Evil,' cannot or do not want to respect human rights when business interests are at stake."

"Microsoft used to ask, 'Where do you want to go today?'" added Rep. Lantos. "Will the answer now be, 'With your company's collusion, to a Chinese prison?'" Lantos is said to be Congress' last serving member who is also a Holocaust survivor.

This afternoon, Radio Free Asia quoted a Google blogger located in Changsha as saying, "It is shameful that Google, Yahoo, MSN, and others are collaborating with a repressive regime in China - much in the same way that some firms did with Nazi Germany decades ago. History will send those collaborators to court and, I hope, very soon."

For his part, the meeting's chairman, Rep. Tim Ryan (D - Ohio), opened with more diplomatic words: "After decades of being silenced and sheltered, Chinese citizens recognize the value of the Internet...Online bulletin boards and blogs can serve as anonymous outlets for Chinese citizens to express their opinions and offer their dissent.

"As the number of Internet users grow," Rep. Ryan added, "the sophistication of the People's Republic of China's Internet-monitoring increases accordingly. There are an estimated 30,000 Chinese cyber-police monitoring the flow of information on the Internet. Additionally, the PRC employs sophisticated technological barriers, including software that deletes banned words from websites, blogs and message boards, and routers that block banned sites altogether. Among the censored words and phrases are 'Dali Lama,' 'Tiananmen Square massacre,' 'Democracy,' and even 'Voice of America.'"

In a demonstration of the effectiveness of Google's Chinese filters in abiding by that government's guidelines, Rep. Chris Smith (R - New Jersey) performed a search using Google Images, for both the .com and .cn domains. In searching for China torture, the .com service retrieved several hundred images, pertinent or not. For the .cn search, the engine for Chinese users retrieved just two. "Google is doing a grave disservice to democracy, human rights and individuals in China," Smith commented.

Americans everywhere must face the reality, Rep. Ryan pointed out in his opening, that doing business with China is necessary for establishing a global marketplace. But American companies, he added, need not cast aside American values in the name of profits. People should keep in mind, he noted, that the Internet was created with US taxpayer dollars. "American citizens and lawmakers have every right to demand that US companies use this technology to advance freedom, rather than condone oppression," he remarked. "That's why I'm so troubled to watch as American companies, in my opinion, squander not only their leverage to create positive change but America's moral authority for whether we like it or not, American companies operating overseas reflect on all of us."

In place of warm bodies, the four invited US companies offered written statements to the Caucus meeting, although it does not appear they were read into the record in place of oral testimony. For Google's part, senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin -- who earlier posted an entry to his company's official blog expressing his own reluctance to embrace Google's China policy -- wrote for the Caucus, "In deciding how best to approach the Chinese -- or any -- market, we must balance our commitments to satisfy the interests of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions. Our strategy for doing business in China seeks to achieve that balance through improved disclosure, targeting of services, and local investment.

"While China has made great strides in the past decades," McLaughlin's letter continues, "it remains in many ways closed. We are not happy about governmental restrictions on access to information, and we hope that over time everyone in the world will come to enjoy full access to information...We believe that our continued engagement with China is the best (and perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there."

Rep. Lantos died of cancer at age 80 in February 2008, and the human rights caucus he chaired now bears his name.

A few months earlier, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Microsoft then-CEO Bill Gates were both in appearance at the World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There, a reporter asked Schmidt if he believed the agreement his company had reached in China was in keeping with the Google credo, "Don't be evil." Schmidt reportedly responded, "We even made an 'evil scale,' and decided it was more evil not to go in than to go in." That prompted Gates to chime in, "That's, do less evil." To which Schmidt responded, "I don't want to get caught up in semantics."

Since that time, Google has evidently gotten caught up in something -- perhaps not semantics, but sticky nonetheless. Breaking its silence on the subject of China and human rights, Google adopted an "openness" stance yesterday, as if its "evil scale" were pointing in the direction of full disclosure all along.

"We have taken the unusual step of sharing information about these attacks with a broad audience not just because of the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech," wrote Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond. "In the last two decades, China's economic reform programs and its citizens' entrepreneurial flair have lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. Indeed, this great nation is at the heart of much economic progress and development in the world today.

"We launched in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that 'we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.'" Drummond continued.

Google's change of heart comes on the day that the Chinese government confirmed, through its official online publication China Daily, that it was shutting down access to some 15,000 Web sites, presumably using the .cn top-level domain, 90% of which the government claimed today are actually being served in the US. Those Web sites are said by China to be "pornographic," although the country's Supreme People's Court has yet to issue an updated ruling as to the definition of that term. The Chinese government report does not name Google specifically. However, it does say that the information being served through those Web sites is being deleted by the government, even though the servers are based here.

The State Dept. has not revealed the nature of the content of Google's briefing, only that it had been briefed on the allegations raised by Google.

In light of today's new revelations in China and elsewhere, Rep. Ryan told Betanews today, "A free and open internet in China has significant potential to positively impact the lives of its citizens. It is about time that Google rethought its position on the censorship of its search engine. Human rights and democratic values should never be come in second to the search for profits. When American corporations defer to repressive policies like those that China inflicts upon its own people, it sends a signal that America is no longer the champion of free and open societies throughout the world."

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