Google pledged yesterday to reconsider its controversial decision to launch a self-censored web search business in China, if it looked as if the internet was failing to improve freedom of expression in the People's Republic.
And it suggested Western governments should treat state censorship as a "barrier to trade" that can be raised in multinational trade negotiations with China. The company's comments came as it and other powerful technology firms were lambasted by a Congressional sub-committee and accused of being "accomplices" to human rights abuses in China, cravenly submitting to state censorship to maximise their profits.
Executives from Yahoo!, Cisco Systems and Microsoft also appeared before the committee to argue that doing business in China was America's best chance of advancing freedom of expression. The hearing was scheduled in response to growing alarm since the jailing of the Chinese journalist Shi Tao last year. Yahoo! turned over information on the writer's internet account, which led to his jailing for distributing a memo on the Tiananmen Square massacre.
"I simply do not understand how your corporate leadership sleeps at night," the Democrat congressman Tom Lantos told company representatives, saying they had become "willing accomplices in the Chinese suppression apparatus".
Google has had its corporate motto - "Do no evil" - repeatedly thrown back in its face after its decision last month to exclude websites containing sensitive political terms from search results through its new Chinese site, Google.cn. "In an imperfect world we had to make an imperfect choice," said Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president for public affairs. He said the company believed its entry to China would make a "meaningful, though imperfect, contribution to the expansion of access to information in China", and would be reconsidered if it did not. It was too early to say Google was "proud" of its decision, he said.
At 110 million, China has the largest number of internet users after the US and internet companies have been eager to tap this market. However, to do business in China, they argue, they must submit to oppressive local laws.
Jack Krumholtz, associate general counsel at Microsoft, saidno country allowed businesses to decide which local laws they adhere to. The committee was asking, he said, whether US companies should cede this market to others and "would Chinese citizens be better off without access to our services?"
Mr Shi was convicted for e-mailing comments made in a newspaper staff meeting to a democracy group in New York. His IP internet address was given to Chinese officials by Yahoo! The company said yesterday that governments do not typically explain why they are requesting such information, and Yahoo! did not know Mr Shi's identity or the political nature of the request.
The mounting costs of Google's overseas expansion meant its last results missed Wall Street forecasts, and an article in the magazine Barron's suggested the shares are over-valued by up to 100 per cent. Google shares have lost more than a quarter of their value from their peak.