White House puts companies on notice in China

WASHINGTON–U.S. Internet companies might soon need to find a new strategy for dealing with China.

In announcing that it is now U.S. policy to advocate a free and open Internet around the world, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday essentially dared U.S. companies to follow Google’s lead and put an end to their complicit censorship of Internet content. Google has said it will shut down its Chinese search engine if it can’t find a way to offer an uncensored version under Chinese law, and while no one else has jumped on that bandwagon, they may soon have little choice.

“…We are urging U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance. The private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what’s right, not simply what’s a quick profit,” Clinton said in remarks Thursday at the Newseum, before an audience including members of Congress, representatives from nonprofit groups, and perhaps more than one Internet company executive forced to ponder the meaning of that paragraph.

Clinton stopped short of actually proposing regulations or sanctions on Internet companies that comply with censorship laws. But her tone was clear: it’s now the policy of the U.S. government to renounce corporate “engagement,” or the belief that by merely being in countries like China, U.S. Internet companies are helping expand access to information.

Will it work? Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have already formed the Global Network Initiative, a consortium of companies and organizations designed to provide guidelines for operating in countries with authoritarian governments without turning into tools of those governments. Clinton acknowledged the work of the GNI during her speech, but is calling on companies to do more.

Microsoft declined to directly address its plans for China in a statement, but thanked Clinton for recognizing the GNI. “We welcome Secretary Clinton’s remarks and applaud the heightened attention she has brought to these issues of privacy and freedom of expression. We agree with Secretary Clinton that both governments and the private sector have important roles to play,” the company said. Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that the company remained committed to China despite Google’s announcement.

Google, which was recognized during Clinton’s speech for “making the issue of Internet and information freedom a greater consideration in (its) business decisions,” said it welcomed the challenge. “Free expression and security are important issues for governments everywhere, and at Google we are obviously great believers in the value to society of unfettered access to information. We’re excited about continuing our work with governments, human rights organizations, and bloggers, to promote free expression and increased access to information in the years ahead,” it said in a statement.

Yahoo did not respond to a request for comment.