Not a moment too soon, Congress is turning up the heat on the cozy relationship that Internet giants Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems have with China's cyber-police.
Top executives from the four firms testified last week before a House subcommittee. The most intriguing questions concerned morality. They don't like China's censorship of the Web, company spokesmen said, but censored information is better than none. Besides, they also argued, they have to comply with the laws of the countries in which they operate. That may be. But China makes a mockery of the Internet's promise of free-flowing information by employing an estimated 30,000 government censors to monitor more than 100 million registered Internet users, not counting its burgeoning cyber-cafes, in its 1.3 billion population.
The censors' dirty work is aided by America's own Cisco Systems, which provides the hardware that gives China what experts have called the world's most sophisticated government-run Internet-filtering system.
Yahoo Inc. has acknowledged that it provided information that led to the arrest and 10-year imprisonment of one of its customers, a Chinese journalist. The French-based Reporters Without Borders recently charged that the company also may have provided information that led to an 8-year sentence for a prominent Chinese dissident in 2003.
Google last month launched a version of its extremely popular search engine that prevents users in China from seeing content that has not been government-sanitized regarding such sensitive subjects as the Tiananmen Square protests, the banned Falun Gong religious group or the suppression of Tibet's independence movement.
Microsoft shut down a blog that was operated on its popular MSN network by a Chinese journalist who was critical of the government.
Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who chaired last week's hearing, compared Yahoo's actions to alerting the Nazis to the whereabouts of Anne Frank.
When a Microsoft executive gave what's been a standard response for the industry, "We comply with legally binding orders whether it's here in the U.S. or China," Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor, also heard echoes from the past. "Well, IBM complied with legal orders when they cooperated with Nazi Germany," Lantos said. "Those were legal orders under the Nazi German system...Do you think that IBM during that period had something to be ashamed of?"
The Microsoft executive declined to answer, pleading ignorance of IBM's work with the Nazis. But Edwin Black, Washington-based author of the 2001 best-seller "IBM and the Holocaust," heard striking echoes of IBM's defense of its work with Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, which provided the tools that eventually helped keep the wheels of the Holocaust running on time.
"IBM tried to be good Nazis in Germany and good Americans in the United States," Black, who is the child of Holocaust survivors, told me in a telephone interview after the hearings. "Google (and the other Internet companies) want to be good Americans in the U.S. and good collaborators in China. They want it both ways, but there are certain things we must not do."
Smith has introduced a bill that would limit the ability of Internet companies to do business in China and other nations that the State Department judges to be repressive. That could mean, for example, moving their network servers outside of China, even though that would slow down service in an industry that prides itself on speed. The State Department also has launched a task force to advise Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on ways to fight China's exploitation of American technology.
As one who believes in the liberating powers of information technologies, I hope the Internet companies won't wait for government intrusion. I hope they will take it upon themselves to use their considerable leverage to stand up to China's cyber-censors and tear down what many are calling the "Great Firewall" of China.
China defends itself by comparing its Internet policing to Germany's censoring of Nazi memorabilia on eBay and U.S. bans on child pornography. But China jails computer users for posting precisely the content that is protected the most in free nations: political speech.
Considerations of morality and human rights in their business considerations may sound like a foreign concept to the go-go leaders of our Internet industry. But, they need to think about it. Sometimes the pursuit of profits demands too much.