Tech Firms Urge U.S. to Prod Countries on Internet Censorship

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American technology giants have urged the U.S. government to do more to confront China and other countries about Internet censorship.

Microsoft, Yahoo and Google also defended themselves against accusations that they have helped governments such as China’s crush dissent in return for access to booming Internet markets.

Andrew McLaughlin, senior counsel for Google, said at a State Department- sponsored conference on Internet freedom on Tuesday that his company was trying to use its “presence in countries that are restrictive to provide communication” options, such as e-mail and blogs, for people who may not have other ways to talk to each other freely.

McLaughlin urged the U.S. government to fight for technology and information companies’ rights in the international trade arena.

“What we need is for censorship to be treated as a trade barrier and be put right up at the top of our agenda when it comes to bilateral” free-trade agreements, McLaughlin said.

Michael Samway, deputy general counsel at Yahoo, also appealed for more action from Washington. “The State Department has the tools to engage foreign governments on openness,” he said. “We do have significant leverage as companies, but the government has the most significant amount of leverage, and we do need the government to be in play.”

Barry Lowenkron, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, said in an opening statement that the United States “will not stand by in the face of unwarranted restrictions of Internet use by oppressive regimes.”

At a House of Representatives hearing last year, the three technology companies and Cisco Systems, which did not appear at the Tuesday meeting, received blistering criticism for their work in China from lawmakers who said that the companies had abandoned social responsibility in a deal for greater wealth.

With 137 million people online, China is on track to surpass the United States in the next two years as the nation with the most Internet users, Chinese officials have said.

In China, filters block objectionable foreign Web sites, and regulations ban what the Chinese consider subversive and pornographic content and require service providers to enforce censorship.

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