Members of the US House of Representatives on Wednesday ripped into four US technology companies, calling them a "disgrace" for allowing the Chinese government to censor web content.

Representative Tom Lantos and other members of the House International Relations Committee criticised Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco Systems for making profits a higher priority than free expression in China.

Profits over free speech

"Instead of using their power and creativity to bring openness and free speech to China, they have caved into Beijing's outrageous, but predictable, demands simply for the sake of profits," said Lantos, a Californian Democrat. "These captains of industry should have been developing new technologies to bypass the sickening censorship of government and repugnant barriers to the internet. Instead, they enthusiastically volunteered for the Chinese censorship brigade."

Representatives of the four companies said they object to the Chinese government's censorship efforts, but they believe their presence in the communist nation will help broaden the political debate there. Lawmakers criticised Yahoo because subsidiary Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. provided email account information to the Chinese government that led to jail sentences for a Chinese political activist and a journalist.

They also lectured Google for offering a censored version of its search engine in China, and Microsoft for removing from MSN Spaces a blog written by a Chinese journalist. Committee members also questioned whether Cisco is helping the Chinese government block access to some websites by selling it network management equipment.

Pragmatic response

"We believe information is power," said Michael Callahan, Yahoo's senior vice president and general counsel. "We also believe the internet is a positive force in China. It has revolutionised information access, helps create open societies and helps accelerate the gradual evolution toward a more outward-looking Chinese society."

Callahan called the case of dissident Shi Tao "distressing" to Yahoo. He was sentenced last April to ten years in prison. The company did not know who the Chinese government was targeting or what crime was supposedly committed when Yahoo received a demand for information from Chinese law enforcement, he said.

"Let me state our view clearly and without equivocation: we condemn punishment of any activity internationally recognised as free expression, whether that punishment takes place in China or anywhere else in the world," Callahan said.

Political repression not a victimless crime

Representative Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said he plans to introduce legislation spelling out what actions US companies are required to take when doing business in "repressive" countries. More than 80 dissidents and journalists have been arrested in China for posting information critical of the government on the internet, he said.

"These are not victimless crimes," said Smith, chairman of the House committee's Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations subcommittee. "We need to stand with the oppressed, not the oppressors."

Smith criticised Cisco, saying the company owns an estimated 60 per cent of the Chinese market for networking gear. "Yet, Cisco has also done little creative thinking to try to minimise the likelihood that its products will be used repressively, such as limiting eavesdropping abilities to specific computer addresses," he said.

Cisco can't control how governments use its network security equipment to block websites, said Mark Chandler, Cisco's senior vice president and general counsel. If China develops its own networking equipment, that will "exacerbate rather than solve the problems", he said.

Mote in the eye

While many committee members criticised the companies, some Democrats questioned how Republicans have pushed for the US to open trading markets with China, then criticised companies for complying with Chinese law. Some Democrats also suggested the US needed to examine its own human rights record, including revelations last year that president George Bush has authorised the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on internet and telephone communications without court-issued warrants.

"I hope that as we preach to China, we practice what we preach," said Representative Diane Watson, a California Democrat.