Google & Co. To Washington: Are You Helping Free Speech? - InformationWeek

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Google & Co. To Washington: Are You Helping Free Speech?

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo told Washington last week that they'd like their government to go bat for them and help them take a stand against censorship in China. The response so far: Do it yourself.

Called before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the companies made clear how they'll answer lawmakers' rising outrage over their part in the censorship of search results and blogs abroad. The plan: Ask the United States to extend the definition of free trade to include the free flow of information.

"As a U.S.-based company that deals primarily in information, we have urged the United States government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade," Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, said in a statement. "There's an important role for the United States government to address, in the context of its bilateral government-to-government relationships, the larger issues of free expression, and open communication." Microsoft and Yahoo in a joint statement also asked for government intervention. (No one from the companies came in person, pleading prior commitments.)

Rep. Lantos says Google can take care of itself.

Rep. Lantos says Google can take care of itself.

Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP
Caucus members hammered the companies last week. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the companies' actions "squander not only their leverage to create positive change but America's moral authority." Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., whose district includes the Bay Area, said Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can fend for themselves. "It's patently absurd to foist this responsibility onto the federal government when these large, wealthy companies based in America--a country that reveres free speech--are fully capable of doing that themselves," says Lynne Weil, the congressman's press secretary.

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have high hopes for the Chinese market, but they're catching flak for the compromises necessary to do business there. Since Google launched its Chinese site,, last week, it has been on the defensive for meeting Chinese censorship requirements. And it won't offer blogs or E-mail, fearing it would have to disclose personal information. Google's McLaughlin described its plan as balancing "commitments to satisfy the interests of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions."

Microsoft was in similar hot water in January after blocking access to the Chinese blog by government critic Michael Anti. In September, it was revealed Yahoo supplied information that Chinese authorities used in sentencing journalist Shi Tao to 10 years in prison.

Asking for help from the U.S. government is one of the few realistic options for these companies. "China is becoming more and more of an important market for a variety of businesses, and they have to decide either they want to do business there or they don't," says Andrew Serwin, a partner in the law firm Foley & Lardner. "And if they do, they've got to comply with those laws."

Stay Transparent

Beyond asking for government help, the companies are trying to make their censorship more transparent, rather than wait until they're called out for it. Google disclosed its censorship policy and will notify users when results have been censored.

Last week, Microsoft senior VP and general counsel Brad Smith set forth his company's new policy for censoring MSN Spaces blog content, saying it would block blogs only after a legally binding notice from government authorities that the content in question violates the law. Access will be denied only in the country in question, and Microsoft will notify customers that the government is responsible for the restrictions.

Google's McLaughlin said such notices are less than ideal: "This is not, to be sure, a tremendous advance in transparency to users, but it is at least a meaningful step in the right direction." Those disclosures might not bring much heat on restrictive governments like China, but they may be more than the U.S. government is willing to apply.

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