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Various technology companies in the West have helped the Chinese government in its longtime efforts to censor the Internet and do cyber-surveillance. Over the years, these companies have excused their behavior with a variation on the same theme: We have to follow local laws when we do business in China, and we can’t ignore China as it has become a superpower in Internet business.

Now, that excuse is faltering in the face of public anger and the political spotlight. Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have been taken to task for providing hardware for surveillance, censoring and closing Chinese blogs, handing over data on cyberdissidents, and censoring search results, respectively.

My question was what do you think about this, and what should be done? Unfortunately, the question was posed right when we had a two-day outage in our comments on the blog, so I would guess some of your thoughts may have fallen into a void. I’m really sorry about that.

However, one respondent, William Johns, who works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had an emotional answer to the question. Johns wondered how U.S.-based companies could forget the long American fight against communism.

“Fifty some thousand of my generation died in Vietnam fighting against communism and many thousands more in the Korean War and somehow the capitalists we were fighting for have had a change of heart and now communism is OK with them and what’s a little oppression or slave labor compared to making a few bucks,” Johns wrote. “Our society will evolve and our technology will change as we leave a dependence on fossil fuel behind us, and America and its people will survive and prosper and so will the world economy hopefully. But right now I would take the people that are in love with the Chinese communists and pack their bags and buy them a plane ticket.”

I also contacted Xiao Qiang (pictured above), who is the director of the China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley, and runs the fabulous China Digital Times site. Xiao told me briefly about his idea for a solution to the conundrum for Western technology companies who want to do business in China but don’t want to support censorship and repression.

“I think these companies should bind together to develop a set of standards and practices which will provide them some collective buffer from aiding in or colluding with human rights abuses,” Xiao wrote to me in an email yesterday. “Customers and shareholders should put pressure on those companies, making them accountable to those standards.”

But is there a precedent for Western companies that have tried to work in concert to change conditions in China? Xiao pointed me to the Global Suppliers Institute, an effort by various American universities and multi-national corporations such as Bayer, HP, Gap and Ford Motor to offer training programs for health and safety and bring social consciousness into the workplace in China.

Today, Xiao testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Global Human Rights — along with representatives from the technology companies — and expanded on his idea for setting up standards and practices among Internet companies doing business with China.

“These standards and practices should serve not only as a catalyst and compass for corporate responsibility, but also as a buffer for companies operating in a political environment where freedom of expression is restricted,” Qiang’s statement read, in part. “Such defense mechanisms should include all possible means, from transparency to non-collaboration and even resistance, to help these companies avoid aiding in or colluding with human rights abuses.

“Having a set of standards and practices is not enough, however. It will only be effective if processes are simultaneously set up to actively promote, implement, and monitor the standards. The information technology industry should also make the implementation of these standards and practices transparent and provide information which demonstrates publicly their commitment and adherence to them. Congress, the media, company shareholders, universities, non-governmental organizations, and the public all have an important role to play in helping the corporations be accountable to these standards.”

It didn’t take long for Congress to take action. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who heads the subcommittee, announced that he would introduce the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 tomorrow. The bill (PDF file) includes various limits on companies doing business with China, and allows any citizen of any nation to sue companies that turn over personal data to foreign governments “except for legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes as determined by the Department of Justice.”

Today is a huge day for human rights activists who have been focusing on the issue of Internet censorship in China and the role of Western technology companies colluding with the government there. Finally, lawmakers appear to be waking up to the problem.

“What Congress is looking for is real spine and willingness to stand up to outrageous demands of a totalitarian regime,” said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) at the hearings today. Addressing the tech companies, Lantos continued: “Your abhorrent activities in China are a disgrace. I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night.”

There is a lot more to read on this matter, and to consider, so I’ve included a list of blogs and news stories that will help you learn more. And of course, I’m still curious what you all think about this, and the new bill in Congress, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Rebecca MacKinnon’s RConversation blog — Former CNN reporter in China gives excerpts of testimony in today’s hearings and has been an expert on this issue.

RedState’s Live from the Hearing Room — Conservative group blog has blow-by-blow details on what happened at today’s hearing.

Yes, Master — Steve Maich’s article in Maclean’s magazine, with great background and history on the subject.

U.S. Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Relations — Scroll down to the Feb. 15 hearing to see links to PDF files with each statement made at today’s hearing.

Politicians Lash Out at Tech Firms Over China — News.com article on today’s hearing, with links to video from the hearing as well.

China Says Web Controls Follow the West’s Lead — A rare appearance by a Chinese Internet official, who defends censorship.

The Web and China: Not So Simple — Ben Elgin’s analysis for BusinessWeek finds that it’s not a clear-cut case of either censorship or not doing business with China.

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