U.S., Microsoft to meet Chinese Web regulators

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Microsoft and the State Department are under fire for their participation in a closed-door Internet conference this week organized with the architects of China’s repressive policies of Web self-censorship and surveillance.

The fifth annual U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum, which will be held Wednesday and Thursday at the Renaissance hotel in downtown D.C., is co-sponsored by Microsoft and the Internet Society of China (ISC).

The proceedings are closed to the press but will feature a keynote address by Vice Minister Qian Xiaoqian of Beijing’s State Council Information Office - the government agency responsible for news media censorship in China.

Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican, said “it’s a mistake” for U.S. officials and executives to attend.

The Chinese government is “using our technology to spy on and torture their own citizens - for American companies to collaborate in that is unconscionable, said Mr. Wolf.

The State Council Information Office “regulates all channels of information in China - the press, broadcasting, Internet … even books,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a China rights scholar at the New America Foundation.

“They are people who issue the directives [to Internet companies] about what kinds of information to watch for or delete … or [to news organizations about] how to cover a story,” said Ms. MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief in Beijing.

The ISC promulgates the Public Pledge of Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China’s Internet Industry, a voluntary code that Internet companies seking to do business in China are required to adopt.

Unlike other national Internet societies, the ISC, which says it is an indepndent nonprofit, “is a quasi governmental body, very closely linked to officialdom,” Ms. MacKinnon said.

She said she she attended a 2009 ISC meeting where the group gave “self-discipline” awards to the Internet companies that had censored the most online content.

The ISC pledge states that “professional ethics” should be designed “consistent with and to carry forward the rich cultural tradition of the Chinese nation and the moral code of socialist spiritual civilization,” according to the ICS website.

Signatories also pledge active self-censorship. “We Internet access service providers pledge to inspect and monitor information on domestic and foreign websites when it provides access to those sites and refuse access to those websites that disseminate harmful information,” states the pledge.

Microsoft Corp. defended its participation in the forum, saying it brings together representatives from industry, government, and academia in both countries.

The goal “is to foster a constructive dialogue between these groups and generate better mutual understanding of business and policy issues related to the Internet,” said Microsoft spokeswoman Julie Gates.

Microsoft is committed to protecting and advancing free expression throughout the world … and we have conversations with governments to make our views known,” she added.

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