US reviews tech business dealings with China

According to news site CNet, the US is to reassess the way its firms deal with dictatorial countries such as China.

Human right groups within the US House of Representatives and Congress are to hold meetings next month to discuss the controversial ease with which US tech firms, keen to expand into China, quickly capitulate to the country’s censorship laws and other demands.

Last summer, for example, Microsoft agreed to ban the use of the words ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’ on the Chinese version of its MSN service.

Yahoo! too agreed to sign an agreement with the Chinese Internet Association ‘not to produce or disseminate harmful documents or any information that could jeopardise national security or social stability; to infringe laws and regulations ; to spread false information, superstition or obscenity.’ Last September, it was accused of providing the state authorities with subscriber information that aided the conviction of a pro-democracy campaigner. The accused was sentenced to 10 years.

In their defence, the companies claimed they were simply abiding by the law. But some US companies are even capitalising on China’s strong Net censorship, such as Atlanta-based Verso Technologies’ NetSpective M-Class software, which was tested in China for its ability to block Skype calls.

Now the US authorities are starting to feel uncomfortable. The US – China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2005 Annual Report to Congress noted that ‘The U.S. government has articulated a desire for freedom of information in China and worldwide, and implemented a program to obstruct Chinese government filtration of Internet content. At the same time, US companies have provided hardware for China’s system of control, and made operating decisions that conform to the preference of China’s government for censorship on the Internet.’

They have invited US tech companies and the group Reporters Without Borders to discuss ways in which they can prevent US companies from working so co-operatively with repressive regimes. This, they say, could be achieved either through voluntary agreements or by legislation.

It is likely that some of the proposals that emerge from the talks will stem from ideas put forward by Reporters without Borders in its recommendations on freedom of expression.

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