The Chinese government is using Internet censorship as a trade weapon against U.S. tech companies trying to do business there, leaders of two business organizations have told a U.S. government commission focused on human rights in China.
China's ongoing censorship of the Internet is applied unevenly, with foreign companies often facing stricter rules than their Chinese counterparts, Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, told the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China during a Thursday hearing.
While the Chinese government blocks U.S. services such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, similar Chinese services are growing in China with little censorship, Black said. Some Web content blocked from appearing on U.S.-based sites in China appears on Chinese sites, he said. In some cases, China has redirected searches through U.S. services to a Chinese service, and its censorship of foreign services drives consumers to Chinese alternatives, he added.
"This double standard strongly suggests that the motivation here is protectionism rather than morals," Black told the commission.
A representative of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn't respond to a request for comments on the hearing. A Chinese spokeswoman in October said the government there protects freedom of expression online.
Two witnesses at the hearing, as well as Representative Chris Smith, the commission chairman and a New Jersey Republican, also raised concerns about news reports that Cisco Systems is working with Chinese police on an Internet surveillance system, called Golden Shield.
"Cisco is responsible for the deterioration of Internet freedom in China," said John Zhang, a political dissident who was imprisoned for two years following the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
Cisco disputed the complaints made at the hearing. "Cisco sells the same products in each nation that it operates, in compliance with U.S. trade and export laws," the company said in a statement. "We do not customize our products in any manner in order to facilitate repression or infringement of rights."
Cisco does not operate networks in China and sells the same equipment there as it does in other countries, the company said.
Black and Gil Kaplan, president of the Committee to Support U.S. Trade Laws, called on the U.S. government to file trade complaints against China. The Office of U.S. Trade Representative's October request for information on Chinese Web blocking is a good first step, but the U.S. government is taking a "small percentage" of the actions it could take to help U.S. businesses compete in China.
Black called China's censorship of the Internet a "deplorable practice that perverts what should be the greatest tool for communication and freedom into a tool for an authoritarian regime's control of information and of its citizens."
The CCIA sees a "greater assertiveness, boldness, unashamedness" of the Chinese government toward enforcing censorship, Black said. The government there is trying to export its model of Internet control so it's not seen as an "outlier" on the world stage, he said.
Black urged commission members to consider the economic impact of censorship as well as human rights.
"While from a human rights perspective, it may seem akin to going after Al Capone for tax evasion, addressing Chinese censorship as a trade barrier is a legitimate, multilateral and potentially effective approach that needs to be pursued by our government at the highest levels," he said. "As the nation that invented the Internet, and as the global standard bearer in both economic and political freedom, we must continue to lead in holding the Chinese government accountable, and we must lead by example."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]