In recent months, there has been a string of disturbing incidents in which several U.S.-based Internet companies have bowed to pressure from Beijing. The launch last week of the censored Chinese Google Web site 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?” Will the answer now be, "With your company’s collusion, to a Chinese prison?” After all, Yahoo provided identifying information to the Chinese secret police that led to the imprisonment of a courageous Chinese journalist, Shi Tao.
Instead of supporting such customers by using their considerable resources to develop new technologies to bypass government gate-keepers, the Internet companies have agreed themselves to guard the gates.
Companies that have blossomed in this country and make billions, a country that reveres freedom of speech, have chosen to ignore that core value in expanding their reach overseas and to erect a "Great Firewall” to suit Beijing’s purposes.
These massively successful high-tech companies which couldn’t bring themselves to send their representatives to our Human Rights Caucus briefing Wednesday on China and the Internet should be ashamed. With all their power and influence, wealth and high visibility, they neglected to commit to the kind of positive action that human rights activists in China take every day. They caved in to Beijing’s demands for the sake of profits, or whatever else they choose to call it.
Now of course we all agree that having some Internet access within China is better than none at all, and that tomorrow there may be more Internet access in China.
It has also been argued Internet companies are entitled to apply the same rules of engagement in China that they apply elsewhere. In Germany, for example, where denying the Holocaust is against the law, access to Neo-Nazi Web pages is impossible via Google. The company notifies its users that not all Web pages may be available. And in its new China services, Google issues a similar warning.
But as the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, I cannot begin to describe how disgusted I am by this particular argument. Because, in essence, it equates the vile language and evil purposes of Neo-Nazi groups and hate speech with content provided by the human rights activists of Falun Gong, by journalists and by democracy activists in China. There simply is no comparison between efforts of the democratically-elected government of the Federal Republic of Germany to move against hate-mongerers, and the Chinese regime cracking down on religious freedom, human rights and democracy.
China’s appalling human rights record never was a secret. U.S. Internet companies simply cannot claim they had no idea of what doing business there could entail. The Internet has always been a vital tool for human rights and democracy advocates in China, and a vital link with the outside world of its oppressed people.
Our Internet companies should have known, because for years their most loyal customers in China have gone to extraordinary technical lengths to bypass government’s controls of the Internet.
If these companies had stood up to Beijing from the beginning, demanding that they retain physical control of their own servers by having them located outside of China, the picture would be very different today.
Tom Lantos represents the Peninsula and part of San Francisco in Congress. He is the founding co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus.<