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U.S., China Spar Over Internet Freedom

January 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Beijing warned that Secretary of State Clinton's blunt remarks on Internet censorship could strain the U.S.-China relationship.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: the growing U.S.-China dispute over free access to the Internet.

In 2006, the world’s most popular search engine, Google, reached a compromise with the world’s most populist country, China. The company agreed to allow filtering of taboo topics, including Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre, on searches done inside China.

But, last week, Google declared it would stop filtering results, and it threatened to pull out of China. That followed a coordinated attack on Google e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

The issue has now touched off diplomatic tensions. Yesterday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for China to conduct a full investigation of the e-mail hacking. In a broader speech on Internet freedom and foreign policy, she sharply criticized countries that engage in censorship of the Web.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.

Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber-attacks should face consequences and international condemnation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to China, Secretary Clinton named Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.

Today, China’s official media fired back. One state-run newspaper charged, Clinton was engaging in — quote — “information imperialism.” And the foreign ministry issued a response on its Web site, saying: “We urge the U.S. side to respect facts and stop using the so-called freedom of the Internet to make unjustified accusations against China.”

Chinese reporting of Clinton’s criticism was sparse, but the U.S. State Department took its case directly to Chinese bloggers. The American Embassy in Beijing and consulates in other cities hosted Web-based discussions about the speech.

For its part, Google issued a statement praising Secretary Clinton’s speech, and CEO Eric Schmidt said the company still hopes to find a way to remain active in China.