WASHINGTON—It's called the Great Firewall of China—a barrier constructed with the help of Silicon Valley companies to block China's Internet users from information about taboo topics such as human rights and democracy.
The participation of U.S. technology giants Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft in the Chinese government's online censorship and surveillance programs is drawing increasing criticism. Officials from the four companies were scheduled to appear at a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
But what can be done to help dismantle China's constantly evolving firewall? And can technology, which helped erect it, be used to tear it down?
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a longtime critic of China's human rights record who convened the House subcommittee hearing, is drafting a bill that would boost funding for counter-censorship technologies.
More money would help small firms like Dynamic Internet Technology, a North Carolina company founded by Chinese expatriate Bill Xia that constantly changes the addresses of U.S. servers to keep the Chinese government from blocking access to restricted sites.
"They keep upgrading their technologies. Still, I think we're staying ahead of them," Xia said in an interview over his cell phone, declining to give the company's exact location for fear of being tracked down by the Chinese government.
More than 100,000 users in China access the company's Web sites, which help providers such as the Voice of America, get information into the country, Xia said. "But to maintain such a large network with good performance, we need funding," said Xia, who has a volunteer team and can only afford to run the company because his wife has a full-time job.
Smith said additional public or private funding for such companies can help combat China's sophisticated Internet censorship and surveillance, which uses automated filters and thousands of "cyber-police" to monitor Web sites for banned content, which can be anything that the Chinese Communist Party deems a potential threat to its rule.
Smith said small companies such as Dynamic Internet Technology have a tough task up against huge companies such as Yahoo that help China adapt their Internet filters.
"It's an active partnership with both the disinformation campaign and the secret police, and the secret police in China are among the most brutal on the planet," Smith said. "I don't know if these companies understand that or they're naive about it, whether they're witting or unwitting. But it's been a tragic collaboration. There are people in China being tortured courtesy of these corporations."
Smith's legislation also would impose restrictions on U.S. companies in China—federal licensing requirements for the export of Internet censorship technologies, mandating that e-mail servers be located outside the country's borders to prevent police from tracking down dissidents, and a code of conduct for doing business in repressive countries.
Yahoo is accused of turning over information that led to the jailing of two dissidents. Microsoft has removed a blog at the Chinese government's request, and Google introduced a search engine in China that won't provide links to sites the government finds sensitive. Cisco has sold routers to China that the rights group Reporters Without Borders said are being used for its surveillance system.
The four companies say they are required to follow Chinese law, and that the democratizing force of the Internet will lead to more openness.
After infuriating lawmakers by declining to send representatives to a Feb. 1 briefing by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on China's Internet censorship, the companies are sending officials to Wednesday's hearing.
On Monday, Yahoo announced it would work with other companies, the government and others to "explore policies to guide industry practices in countries where content is treated more restrictively than in the United States and to promote the principles of freedom of speech and expression."
And on Tuesday, the State Department announced a new Global Internet Task Force to look for ways to minimize censorship and to press for changes abroad. The initiative would bring together administration and congressional officials, human rights activists and technology companies. One issue it is expected to examine is whether to require U.S. review and licensing of exports of Internet censorship technologies.
Ken Berman, director of information technology for the International Broadcasting Bureau, which runs Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, said more funding for counter-censorship technology would be helpful. The organization spends about $5 million a year on developing such technology.
But China and the large tech companies are major obstacles, he said. Tactics for avoiding Chinese censors that once worked for a week or two now last about 72 hours before China catches on.
"They are putting numerous resources to do whatever it takes to try to keep the Great Firewall intact," Berman said.
(Puzzanghera reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)
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