February 15 was a very squirmy day for officials at Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco. A Congress in high moral dudgeon accused them of helping the repressive Chinese regime censor the free flow of information and target dissent.
Addressing an overflow crowd, Republican New Jersey representative Christopher Smith — citing an estimated 81 people imprisoned in China for posting material critical of the regime — called the Internet a “cyber sledgehammer of repression of the government of China.” He added, “For the sake of market share and profits, leading US companies like Google, Yahoo, Cisco, and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens.”
Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the International Relations Committee and a Holocaust survivor, warned that without Congressional oversight, “these companies would have continued their nauseating collaboration with a regime of repression.” He then asked the corporate executives if they were “ashamed” of their work in China.
Not everyone was impressed with the display of Congressional outrage. Writing for www.TomPaine.com, former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich described the hearings as a “holier-than-thou public condemnation” and a grandstanding “media circus.” But the issue at center stage is a pivotal one. It forces a face-off between capitalism and freedom, and between engagement and confrontation as the Internet emerges as a path for the unprecedented global flow of information. Or a tool for cynical governmental control of citizens. Or both.
Right now, the chief battleground is China, a totalitarian superpower and huge economic prize that already has more than 100 million Internet users. It also boasts a number of US companies that have conformed to repressive Chinese dictates. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based organization that advocates for freedom of expression, has created a list of “15 enemies of the Internet,” with entries ranging from Burma and Cuba to Tunisia — some of which are also reliant on US technology.
“Of course everybody is focused on China because it’s a powerful country,” says Julien Pain, who runs the organization’s Internet-freedom desk. “What I’m monitoring is [that] it’s now a worldwide problem. Now all dictators on earth are trying to control the Internet.”
“It’s a problem in most repressive regimes,” agrees Danny O’Brien, activism coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I think the reason why the hearing concentrated on China is that China is a very convenient target for a Congressional investigation. Economically, it’s turning into a powerhouse, and this is the point at which they are trying to build their ‘net.’ ”
Given the intense focus on the issue in Washington, there seems to be a frantic scramble for guidelines and ground rules — with no guarantee of success or even sanity. Looming over the debate is the question of whether, in a complicated world, the US government should treat the export of such potent information technology in much the same fashion as it exports weaponry.