Four U.S. high-tech companies on Wednesday found themselves branded collaborators with the Chinese government in suppressing dissent in return for access to a booming Internet market.
House members contended that Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and Google Inc. sought to explain their business practices in China only after a recent crush of negative media and government attention.
"Your abhorrent actions in China are a disgrace," said California Rep. Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the House International Relations subcommittee. "I simply don't understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night."
Yahoo's senior vice president and general counsel, Michael Callahan, said his company was "very distressed" at having to comply with Chinese law.
Elliot Schrage, vice president of global communications and public affairs for Google, said Google's decision to censor its Chinese Internet search engine was "not something we did enthusiastically or something we're proud of at all. ... We have begun a path that we believe will ultimately benefit our users in China."
Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, said Google seemingly had acted "as a functionary of the Chinese government. ... This is astonishing."
Analysts say U.S. high-tech companies trying to tap a market of more than 110 million Internet users also must worry about the perception they are helping China harass dissidents.
To do business, U.S. companies must satisfy a government in Beijing that fiercely polices Internet content. Policies include:
— Filters that block objectionable foreign Web sites.
— Regulations banning what the Chinese consider subversive and pornographic content.
— Requiring Internet service providers to enforce government censorship.
Microsoft's associate general counsel, Jack Krumholtz, said his company was committed to staying in China because of the Internet's potential for eventually allowing free access to information.
"We think the benefits far outweigh the downside, in terms of promoting freedom of expression," he said.
Lantos repeatedly asked whether Yahoo had contacted the family of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who critics say Yahoo helped police identify and convict after he criticized human rights abuses in China.
Callahan said Yahoo condemned what happened to Shi and had not contacted his family.
The business executives appealed for guidance from Washington, saying they faced the difficult decision of complying with Chinese law or leaving the country.
Schrage told lawmakers that "the requirements of doing business in China include self-censorship — something that runs counter to Google's most basic values and commitments as a company."
Still, he said, Google decided to enter China because it thought it would "make a meaningful, though imperfect, contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China."
The U.S. government should play an important role in encouraging Internet freedom, the companies said.
Google, for one, urged the State Department and the U.S. trade representative to press U.S. concerns on censorship during talks with foreign governments.
Callahan said, "These issues are larger than any one company or any one industry."
"Yahoo cannot take this ... on by itself," he said. "We ask for the government's help."
A survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists said of China's efforts to control its media, "Never have so many lines of communication in the hands of so many people been met with such obsessive resistance from a central authority."
James Keith, the State Department's senior adviser on East Asia, told lawmakers that China's efforts to manipulate the Internet have increased in the last year, "sending a chilling message to Internet users."
China says its steps are intended to protect its citizens, especially children, from "the immoral and harmful content" of the Internet.