Stung by bad publicity over their respective efforts to do business in China, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo on Wednesday asked the government to take a stand against censorship.
In a statement prepared for a meeting held Wednesday by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, asked the U.S to go to bat for American values overseas by extending the definition of free trade to include the free flow of information.
"[A]s a U.S.-based company that deals primarily in information, we have urged the United States government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade," he said. "There is an important role for the United States government to address, in the context of its bilateral government-to-government relationships, the larger issues of free expression and open communication."
As part of his statement, Google's McLaughlin detailed his company's plan to "balance [its] commitments to satisfy the interests of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions." In China, the local conditions consist of significant restrictions on information. Thus, Google's strategy for doing business there will achieve that balance through "improved disclosure, targeting of services, and local investment."
Microsoft and Yahoo also asked for government intervention in a joint statement prepared for the caucus. "While we believe that companies have a responsibility to identify appropriate practices in each market in which they do business, we think there is a vital role for government-to-government discussion of the larger issues involved," the two companies said. "We urge the United States government to take a leadership role in this regard and have initiated a dialogue with relevant U.S. officials to encourage such government-to-government engagement."
Congressman Tom Lantos, co-chair of the caucus, believes that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can fend for themselves. "These are companies with tremendous resources," Lynne Weil, the Congressman's press secretary, said in a phone interview. "Congressman Lantos feels that they have sufficient power to be able to influence what restrictions are or are not placed on them when they begin dealing with another country and its government. He feels it's patently absurd to foist this responsibility onto the federal government when these large, wealthy companies based in America -- a country that reveres free speech -- are fully capable of doing that themselves."
Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have high hopes for the Chinese market, but to date their efforts abroad have earned them low marks from critics.
Since the launch of Google's censored Chinese site, Google.cn, last week, Google has been on the defensive trying to reconcile its aim to do no evil with its willingness to collaborate with Chinese censorship requirements. "The launch last week of the censored Chinese Google website is only the latest sign that even companies that make strong and impressive corporate claims, such as Google’s motto, 'Don't Be Evil,' cannot or do not want to respect human rights when business interests are at stake," Lantos said in a statement.
Microsoft was sitting uncomfortably in the same hot water in early January after it blocked access to the site of Chinese blogger Michael Anti. In September 2005, Yahoo was on the spot following revelations that it supplied information to the Chinese authorities that led to ten year prison sentence for Chinese journalist Shi Tao.
Asking for help from the government may be the only option these companies. "China is becoming more and more of an important market for a variety of businesses and they have to decide either they want to do business there or they don't," says Andrew Serwin, a partner in the San Diego office of Foley & Lardner LLP. "And if do, they've got to comply with those laws. And it doesn't mean they agree with them or like them. They don't have much choice."
For public companies, which are measured primarily by financial performance, choosing not to do business in China isn't a realistic option. Moreover, Serwin suggests that concerns about censorship aren't really appropriate. "It's probably no more proper for us in the U.S. to impose our views on the Chinese than it would be for them to impose their censorship on us," he says.
On Tuesday, Microsoft SVP and general counsel Brad Smith set forth his company's new policy for dealing with government orders related to MSN Spaces blog content.
Under its new standards, Microsoft will block blogs only when presented with a legally binding notice from government authorities that the content in question violates the law. Access will be denied only in the country in question and Microsoft customers responsible for blocked content will be notified that their government is responsible for the restrictions.
As in the case of other countries that censor like France and Germany, users of Google.cn, the company's Chinese Web site, will see an explicit notification that their search results have been censored. "This is not, to be sure, a tremendous advance in transparency to users, but it is at least a meaningful step in the right direction," McLaughlin said.