— US technology firms including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have come under fire for allegedly helping China monitor suspected dissidents.
The companies were accused of colluding with China at the Internet Governance Forum, a United Nations (UN) meeting held in Athens, Greece, this week.
Meanwhile, to scattered boos from other participants, a Chinese delegate who identified himself as a member of his country's mission to the UN said there were "no restrictions at all" on the flow of information in China.
However, the BBC said its websites were indeed being suppressed in several countries, including China and Iran. "[We] are blocked because we refuse to compromise on our reporting," said BBC Global News Director Richard Sambrook, drawing a parallel with the Cold War era, when the BBC had its short-wave radio jammed in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Cisco Systems were all criticised at the four-day forum. "Yahoo compromised on their corporate policy in China, and a journalist was subsequently arrested," said Irish Senator Paschal Mooney, referring to the company's disclosure of one internet user's identity an incident that landed the global search engine in trouble with human rights groups (see Amnesty International criticises US web companies)
But the companies struck back, arguing that their operations in China benefit millions of internet users by giving them greater access to information. "A year after our company entered China in 1994, China had 80,000 Internet users [ ] In 2005, it had 130 million users," said Art Reilly, of Cisco Systems, which was accused by Reporters Without Borders of allegedly selling technology enabling the Chinese police to monitor dissidents.
He added that he was "not familiar" with the sale of products to any specific entity within China and insisted that the technology made by Cisco ultimately ensured the flow of information within the country.
Microsoft's senior policy counsel Fred Tipson rode to Yahoo's defence, noting that if the company had declined the Chinese authorities' request, it would probably have been booted out of the country altogether.
"When the police come at the door, you don't know whether they're after a journalist or a paedophile," Tipson argued. "The condition of doing business in a country is to abide by the law of that country. I don't accept the accusation that we're colluding, I think we are maximising the access to information for users."
Tipson said that Microsoft is debating the point at which it would be unacceptable to continue doing business in China. But he pointed to a growing list of countries that want to sift through private communications in the interests of fighting terrorism.
"We have to have a point when we decide that things look so bad, that censorship, or persecution of bloggers, or monitoring of email has reached a point when it's simply unacceptable to continue to do business there," he said. "We try to define those levels, and the trends are not good at the moment, and not just in China."
Google has also been criticised for imposing censorship of material that can be accessed by users in China. But the company's vice-president Vint Cerf, a founding father of the internet, said Google had based its decision to begin operations in China on the aim of bringing as much information to Chinese users as possible.
"We show when [information] suppression is taking place... [and] we did not offer [our email] service because we didn't want to have material that the Chinese authorities could insist that we reveal," Cerf said.