Breaching China's great firewall

'I do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night." That was California Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos at last week's House hearing, excoriating US Internet executives who assist Beijing censorship even as they expand business in China. But the scolding should also apply to others - including Congress.

No one involved in this issue of compromising free speech - not America's lawmakers, its Internet companies, nor the public - should rest comfortably while China cracks down harder on the media, including the second largest Internet market in the world. Yahoo, especially, must be singled out for handing over to Chinese officials the user ID of a local dissident journalist who then was jailed for 10 years.

For 18 months now, Beijing has been vigorously squelching "unapproved" public speech - firing pioneering editors, placing restrictions on cellphones to stop renegade text messaging, and shutting down certain Internet blogs. Its system to block taboo websites and topics is formidable - dubbed the "great firewall of China."

To have US Internet firms now exit China, as some US lawmakers suggest, would be a disservice to the 110 million users there. An Internet search giant such as Google, which recently resorted to self-censorship in order to install Internet servers on the Chinese mainland, opens the information window further simply by providing access to news that the Chinese might not otherwise get.

But there are other ways to nudge China toward a more open society short of compromising US values. One group laboring painstakingly at this are "hacktivists," US computer specialists who make it possible for Chinese to circumvent the Internet roadblocks thrown up by censors. But so far only the serious Chinese surfer has the dedication to learn this technology. And Beijing finds ways to outsmart the hacktivists.

Neither business nor Congress should rely solely on technology to improve information access. One smart suggestion is that US companies write their own "Sullivan Principles," the business ethics code that helped crack apartheid in South Africa. Google shouldn't be the only firm that notifies Chinese users of censorship. Neither should Microsoft alone fight off arbitrary phone calls from officials by instead demanding written, legal justification for deleting material.

But business also needs Congress. Just as the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act provided legal cover for US firms to say "no" to international bribery, Internet companies could use backing from Congress to refuse the most harmful of China's demands - user identification. One House bill provision that deserves consideration is that Web user information be kept outside Internet-restricting countries, and thus beyond their jurisdiction.

Lastly, the public needs to be alert. Consumers and watchdog groups could put more pressure on Internet firms, much as they do on issues of labor and environmental practices of US companies overseas.

China's market is so alluring, its government censorship so pervasive, it's not realistic to expect major or swift change. But the hope of any improvement will be lost if firms, Congress, and the public slumber on.

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