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Lawmakers Rip Web Firms for Cooperation in China

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

On to the internet CEOs on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers grilled the executives for bowing to Chinese censors. During the hearing, leaders from Google and Yahoo sounded contrite at times, but they insisted that in the long run their operations in China would foster freedom there, not squelch it. NPR's Frank Langfitt has that story.

FRANK LANGFITT: Information companies face a tough dilemma when working in China, how to follow the rules of an authoritarian regime while remaining true to the spirit of democracy and free speech. Recently, Google has come under criticism for censoring terms like democracy and China human rights on its Chinese search engine. Congressman Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, wondered why a company that trumpets the openness of the Internet would work on behalf of Beijing to restrict it.

DAN BURTON: I just can't understand why these companies who are making so much money can't do it in a different way, not supporting a repressive regime that throws their people in jail simply because they disagree with them, or crushes them with tanks.

LANGFITT: Elliot Schrage, a Google executive, defended his company's decision to do business in China, which has 111 million internet users, second only to the United States. But he acknowledged that working under the regime's security laws has forced Google to make uncomfortable decisions.

ELLIOT SCHRAGE: In an imperfect world, we had to make an imperfect choice. Based on what we know today and what we see in China, we believe our decision is a reasonable one, better for Chinese users and better for Google.

LANGFITT: Yahoo has been criticized for giving Chinese authorities information that helped them track down a Chinese journalist, who is now in prison. Michael Callahan, Yahoo's general counsel, said the company was distressed by the case. But he also said there were practical problems in telling employees in China to ignore government mandates.

MICHAEL CALLAHAN: I don't think it would be appropriate for me to sit in my office in California and order a Chinese citizen in our Beijing operations not to follow a lawful demand. Recognizing the very distressing consequences that that caused, that could subject that person to persecution and criminal prosecution.

LANGFITT: Congressman Adam Smith, a Democrat from the state of Washington, said companies could not walk away from China, and that the U.S. had to keep engaging the regime in Beijing. And he pointed out that for the most part, the internet has made Chinese society more open.

ADAM SMITH: While there is no question that China is a repressive regime, and you can pick your example and bash on it in a number of different ways, I think the question is, is it getting any better? And the stories I'm hearing is that it is, that in fact there is greater freedom and openness amongst the people than there was 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago.

LANGFITT: Congressman Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chaired the hearing, plans to introduce legislation next week which would force U.S. companies to place their servers outside of China and hopefully beyond Chinese law. But even David Gross, who coordinates information policy at the State Department, emphasized that any solution would have to be flexible, because the internet is changing every day.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.