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Google & Co. To Washington: Are You Helping Free Speech?

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo told Washington last week that they'd like their government to go bat for them and help them take a stand against censorship in China. The response so far: Do it yourself.

Called before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the companies made clear how they'll answer lawmakers' rising outrage over their part in the censorship of search results and blogs abroad. The plan: Ask the United States to extend the definition of free trade to include the free flow of information.

"As a U.S.-based company that deals primarily in information, we have urged the United States government to treat censorship as a barrier to trade," Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, said in a statement. "There's an important role for the United States government to address, in the context of its bilateral government-to-government relationships, the larger issues of free expression, and open communication." Microsoft and Yahoo in a joint statement also asked for government intervention. (No one from the companies came in person, pleading prior commitments.)

Rep. Lantos says Google can take care of itself.

Rep. Lantos says Google can take care of itself.

Photo by Ng Han Guan/AP

Caucus members hammered the companies last week. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, said the companies' actions "squander not only their leverage to create positive change but America's moral authority." Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., whose district includes the Bay Area, said Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo can fend for themselves. "It's patently absurd to foist this responsibility onto the federal government when these large, wealthy companies based in America--a country that reveres free speech--are fully capable of doing that themselves," says Lynne Weil, the congressman's press secretary.

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have high hopes for the Chinese market, but they're catching flak for the compromises necessary to do business there. Since Google launched its Chinese site,, last week, it has been on the defensive for meeting Chinese censorship requirements. And it won't offer blogs or E-mail, fearing it would have to disclose personal information. Google's McLaughlin described its plan as balancing "commitments to satisfy the interests of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions."

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