Internet companies should reassess actions in China

Freedom Newspapers

We’ve seen cigarette company CEOs called to account by Congress. Oil company honchos, too, have been ordered to appear, and grilled about the allegedly obscene profits they’ve been pulling down. So break out the stakes, matches and marshmallows: It’s weenie-roasting time again on Capitol Hill!

Next up for the congressional inquisition are the heads of Internet companies collaborating with the Chinese government to censor ideas threatening to the regime in Beijing. Their day of reckoning is Wednesday. And while we normally find such congressional show trials ridiculously pointless and self-serving, this time we’ll be cheering from the sidelines.

We hope members of the committee will be ruthless in exposing the hypocrisy of American companies that have made a fortune in the information and ideas business, but are now kow-towing to Chinese thought police in pursuit of profits. By standing united and refusing to bend to Beijing’s demands, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems could have sent a strong message — not just to the Chinese but to the world — supporting freedom of thought and expression. But one by one they caved in and the opportunity was squandered. A few angry members of Congress are now calling them to account.

One of the most vocal critics, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House Human Rights Subcommittee, wants “legislation requiring companies to pull operations such as e-mail servers out of China and other countries that lack U.S.-style civil rights and due process protections,” according to Reuters News Service. But as disgusted as we are with these companies, we believe Congress would be exceeding its authority and wrong to order private companies out of China. This would also be hypocritical, since a majority in Congress still supports “most favored nation” trading status for “the party’s republic” of China, in spite of its abysmal human rights record.

No, shaming these companies into seeing the light and altering their behaviors is far better than using coercion or force — a tactic more appropriate to the Chinese than the American government.

“Congress remains very concerned with the Chinese pressure on Internet companies to help in Beijing’s continuing crackdown on free speech,” said Rep. Tom Lantos, a Democrat whose congressional district includes part of California’s Silicon Valley. “We are looking into ways in which the companies can resist or circumvent this pressure, and this will be Topic A at our hearing …”

But it shouldn’t take the intervention of Congress to find “ways in which the companies can resist or circumvent this pressure.” Even companies can exercise willpower and refuse to comply when a foreign government demands actions that are offensive to their principles and conscience, assuming they have any. So Lantos is engaged in blame-shifting.

There have always been elements in the American business community willing to cuddle up to tyrants for a chance to sop up a little extra gravy. And Americans who might have believed that new-age companies are somehow immune from these temptations now know better. “The bloom is off the rose for the Internet industry,” said John Palfrey, director of an Internet think tank at Harvard Law School. “There is a sense that American companies have a higher obligation than has been practiced in China in recent years.”

Hopefully, these hearings and the public pressure they generate will force these companies to reassess their obligations, not just to their shareholders but to the ideas of free speech and expression without which they and the country that made them profitable wouldn’t exist.