Last week, a Joint hearing of the Subcommittees on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations and Asia and the Pacific (part of the House International Relations Committee) of the U.S. Congress was held on the involvement of U.S. firms (including Yahoo! and Google, as has been discussed in earlier posts) in upholding China’s oppressive regulation of the Internet in that country. The hearings are interesting not only for the particular points raised, but for the question it raises on who is responsible for putting pressure on oppressive regimes: private sector firms or the governments that represent them?

Several statements were given at the hearings, many which are available from the International Relations Committee’s website, as is a webcast of the over seven hours’ worth of the hearings themselves. (As a minor point, I should note that co-chair Representative Christopher Smith’s website states that these Congressional hearings are the first to be “blogged live”–when in fact they were webcast live, and as far as I can tell there is no blog connected with the hearings at all.)

The main issues of concern at the hearings were the compliance of some companies to Chinese restrictions on the Internet, including in relation to search engines and blogging tools, as well as the sale of hardware used for filtering and surveillance. Some of the language used was pretty strong, including parallels drawn between the current treatment of dissidents by the Chinese government, and the use of U.S.-originated technology to do so, with the Holocaust. Congressman Smith in particular referred to how IBM technology was used by the Nazis to automate genocide, to illustrate how technology has been used to “crush human rights”.

It is certainly true that technology can be applied to less than savory purposes. But it is important to remember that the technology itself is neutral.

The statement of Congressman James A. Leach (co-chair of the hearings) was particularly interesting in this respect. Congressman Leach recognises that the technology of the Internet is “agnostic”. (It would require listening to all of the Government testimony to confirm it, but he appears to have been the only Government spokesman to make this point.) He also identified the key issue that is disturbing about the technology firms’ actions with respect to China. It is not simply that Google (for example) have co-operated with the Chinese government’s censorship practices–the crux of the issue (as identified by Leach) is that content was that Google voluntarily and pre-emptively restricted content, and not in response to government objections. As commented by Congressman Leach:

What is interesting is that the censorship practices of American companies do not represent attempts to uphold the rhetoric of the Chinese Constitution. Rather, they are undertaken in response to – or in anticipation of – a threat of commercial or criminal reprisals by the Chinese government which contravene their own Constitution.

It is presently impossible to gauge the leverage that American companies possess inside China because many of the limitations they observe are self-imposed, and were apparently influenced by but not negotiated with Chinese authorities. By preemptively altering their online products to conform to the predilections of Chinese censors, those companies may be diluting the liberalizing pressure created by the desire of the Chinese people to use their original, unaltered products. To note one example, when China temporarily shut down access to, a significant public outcry developed which helped lead to the eventual restoration of that search service. I worry that by providing a sanitized, censored version of Google, that company may be allowing Chinese censors to avoid the public pressure that otherwise would result from their restrictive decisions. Citizens of China are willing to risk jail for freedom of expression when certain American companies are unwilling to risk profits for the same principle.

This distinction is important. There is a cost associated with doing business in China–namely complying with local laws which undercut Western democratic ideals. But pre-empting local concerns which conflict with democratic norms may limit the ability of a very powerful technology to change things in China.

Democrat Representative Adam Smith noted that it’s important to remember that the situation in China is slowly getting better. In addition, he noted that this situation is extremely complicated, and it is not fair to simply criticise American technology companies for doing business in China.

The statements made by representatives from Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft can be generally summarised as saying that to do business in China, local laws must be observed. With respect to Cisco, the main point was that the hardware sold in China is the same as sold anywhere else in the world. The routers and other equipment used by the Chinese government to filter content adheres to a global standard, and is the same equipment, Cisco’s representative noted, used to filter out pornographic and other material to make the Web safe for children.

The statement of Elliot Schrage, Vice President, Global Communications and Public Affairs, of Google, also makes very interesting reading. Not only does he recount the history of Google in China to explain the origins of the current (filtered) service, and of the Internet in China more generally, but he outlines the (sometimes conflicting) aims of Google:

Google’s objective is to make the world’s information accessible to everyone, everywhere, all the
time. It is a mission that expresses two fundamental commitments:

(a) First, our business commitment to satisfy the interests of users, and by doing so to build a leading company in a highly competitive industry; and
(b) Second, our policy conviction that expanding access to information to anyone who wants it will make our world a better, more informed, and freer place.

Some governments impose restrictions that make our mission difficult to achieve, and this is what we have encountered in China. In such a situation, we have to add to the balance a third fundamental commitment:

(c) Be responsive to local conditions.

So with that framework in mind, we decided to try a different path, a path rooted in the very pragmatic calculation that we could provide more access to more information to more Chinese citizens more reliably by offering a new service – – that, though subject to Chinese self-censorship requirements, would have some significant advantages. Above all, it would be faster and more reliable, and would provide more and better search results for all but a handful of politically sensitive subjects.

And, in evaluating Google’s current approach to the restrictive Chinese environment, Schrage comments:

We don’t pretend that this is the single “right” answer to the dilemma faced by information companies in China, but rather a reasonable approach that seems likely to bring our users greater access to more information than any other search engine in China. And by serving our users better, we hope it will be good for our business, too, over the long run.

It is not clear where the burden should lie when dealing with restrictive regimes such as that in China. Should it be with private sector firms, which make decisions whether to do business with these regimes–and how? Or should it be with the government, which participates in more formal policymaking? And to what extent do those private sector firms set the agenda followed by government policymakers? Perhaps the distinction is not too important in the end. After all, in a democratic state the government represents its citizens–and some of those citizens run those firms.