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.
Robert Hormats, undersecretary of state for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs, is scheduled to deliver a speech at forum on Wednesday as the most senior Obama administration official at the forum.
An official in Mr. Hormats' office declined detailed comment ahead of the speech, the text of which he said would be released afterward.
But he denied that the State Department is cosying up to the Chinese, saying Mr. Hormats' remarks would be "frank."
Human rights advocates urged Mr. Hormats to be forthright, and called on U.S. participants to press their Chinese partners to be more transparent.
"It's unfortunate that the ISC isn't prepared to engage the press," said Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch's business and human rights program. "They should be pressured to talk more openly."
Ms. MacKinnon, who has attended the previous forums, said it is useful to meet "far behind closed doors" because, in off-the-record discussions, Chinese officials, executives and academic sometimes speak more freely.
"People [in China] are very concerned about being quoted and getting in trouble," she said. "Take away that fear and you can have a more nuanced conversation."
She said she believes Microsoft and other firms see the forum as a chance to educate Chinese officials about the realities of the political and policy process in the United States.
"It's sort of 'welcome to our world,' where you've got human rights activitists and congressional hearings," she said.
"My impression is that Microsoft is having a tough time in China right now," she said. "This helps them explain [to Chinese officials] why they can't just behave like a Chinese company."
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