BEIJING—Have U.S. high-tech giants helped China bring the Internet to heel?
Several human rights and free-speech groups believe so. They charge that companies such as Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Google and Yahoo have assisted China in building and maintaining the most sophisticated Internet filtering system on Earth.
The U.S. companies respond that they sell standard equipment and services to China and aren't responsible for how the gear or software is put to use.
The debate touches on a number of issues involving the attraction of huge markets in China, differing laws on Internet content around the world and corporate social responsibility for the way products are employed.
Criticism of the Western companies began several years ago as it became clear that China was programming routers and using software to block foreign Web sites, hinder Internet searches and intercept e-mail—dimming hopes that the Internet would facilitate political change in a nation ruled for 56 years by the Communist Party.
"We had the dream that the Internet would free the world, that all the dictatorships would collapse," said Julien Pain, an Internet expert with Reporters Without Borders, a free-speech advocacy group based in Paris. "We see it was just a dream."
Pain's group has been among the most sharply critical of U.S. and Canadian companies' actions in China—describing them as "censorship ... with U.S. corporate help"—but groups such as London-based Amnesty International and the U.S. group Human Rights Watch have also weighed in. The groups accuse the companies of facilitating China's Internet filtering and surveillance infrastructure.
China's Internet backbone relies on networking equipment and software from U.S. companies such as Cisco, Sun Microsystems and 3Com, as well as the Canadian firm Nortel Networks.
"Cisco Systems in particular has been integral to China's Internet development. The core of China's Internet relies on Cisco technology," notes an April 14 report by the OpenNet Initiative, a consortium of scholars at Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Toronto. The report cited the "considerable debate about the complicity of Western companies" in building and maintaining China's filtering system.
Cisco, the networking giant based in San Jose, Calif., has sold billions of dollars of routing equipment to China since entering the country in 1994.
A Cisco spokesman for the Asia-Pacific region, Terry Alberstein, said the company doesn't set policy for how its equipment is used.
"Our perspective is that it's the user, not Cisco, that determines the functionality and uses to which the technology is put," Alberstein said in a telephone interview from Melbourne, Australia.
Elsewhere in the world, clients filter the Internet for pornography, hate crimes and religious fanaticism, Alberstein said, and Cisco declines to get involved in such matters.
He said the Internet has had a "profoundly positive" impact on economic activity in China and that criticism of its filtering glosses over "how astronomically beneficial to China the Internet is."
Amnesty International has called on foreign networking companies to China to heed the 2003 U.N. Human Rights Norms for Business, a nonbinding text that urges foreign companies to refrain from activities that could help nations abuse human rights.
It's not just networking companies in the crossfire of the debate. Google and Yahoo, the global Internet search and Internet services companies, respectively, also have faced criticism over their acceptance of Chinese filtering rules as a way to gain access to the huge potential of the China market.
Last September, Google said it had made a "difficult decision" to reconfigure its Google News page for its China edition to leave out some headlines and links to news sources that are deemed unacceptable to the government.
"Simply showing these headlines would likely result in Google News being blocked altogether in China," the statement said, adding that the company made the "tradeoff" believing it was in the "best interests of our users located in China."
For his part, Yahoo's chief executive officer, Terry Semel, was unapologetic during a recent forum in Beijing about complying with laws about Internet content.
Yahoo has been censoring its Chinese-language search engine for several years to permit only Web sites permitted by China's Internet police to appear.
"It's just really important for us to have good relations and good partnerships with governments all over the world," Semel said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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