Congress yesterday considered how to resolve the dilemma of U.S. Internet companies that try to serve their customers but end up serving repressive foreign governments.
Witnesses at a congressional hearing talked about dissidents in China, Syria and Russia who were imprisoned after posting their political thoughts on the Internet.
Routers, e-mail and other Internet services of U.S. companies helped the foreign governments track down the dissidents in some cases, the witnesses told members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on human rights and the law.
"Cisco"s routers are supercomputers," said Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a group that advocates against political censorship of the Internet. "They can be used as a toys, but they can also be made into an A-bomb."
He was referring to the Chinese government's Golden Shield Project, sometimes referred to as the Great Firewall of China. It is a censorship and surveillance program run by China's Ministry of Public Security that began operating in November 2003.
The Global Internet Freedom Consortium says Cisco Systems Inc.'s contract with the Chinese government to help build the Golden Shield program enabled Chinese police to find and arrest dissidents by tracking their Internet postings back to the source.
"They can make it into an A-bomb to make it do whatever the Golden Shield needs," Mr. Zhou said about Cisco's computer systems.
Information presented at the hearing included a 2002 PowerPoint presentation reportedly produced by Cisco and the Chinese government. It gave an update on China's Internet security network and its goal to "combat 'Falun Gong' evil religion and other hostiles."
Falun Gong is a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government as a cult.
Chinese government documents given to The Washington Times by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium and translated into English say, "The implementation and architecture of the second and third level (Golden Shield) network is solely based on Cisco switches, routers and intelligent administration systems."
A Cisco executive said use of its systems for political repression resulted from someone customizing the software and equipment for purposes that the company does not condone.
"We are providing generic routing equipment," said Mark Chandler, Cisco's general counsel. He said he was "appalled" to hear the Golden Shield was being used to arrest and imprison political dissidents.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering legislation to make U.S. companies refrain from using their Internet services to assist repressive governments.
U.S. companies "have a moral obligation to protect freedom of expression," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
A bill pending in the House could impose criminal penalties on Internet companies that help governments apprehend political dissidents by turning over information that identifies them. It was introduced last year by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican.
Witnesses from Internet service providers Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. said they have adopted corporate responsibility standards but are limited in their ability to oppose government policies.
Michael Samway, Yahoo's deputy general counsel, said his company sometimes must filter information available on the Internet to comply with Chinese law, "which any Chinese company would be required to do."
Some American Internet listings for Tiananmen Square in Beijing include photos of tanks and troops during a 1989 uprising and massacre. Chinese Internet listings for Tiananmen Square show only the kinds of photos that would appeal to tourists.
The Chinese government also censored Internet information about the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak that had been traced to China.
Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel, said her company puts notices at the bottom of Internet pages in countries that promote censorship saying some material might be omitted to comply with local law.
"It isn"t perfect and we know that," Ms. Wong said.
The company also does not offer G-mail or blogs in China because the government might trace the messages back to their source.
She suggested that the U.S. State Department take a bigger role in combating Internet censorship by foreign governments.
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