RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Representatives of Cisco Systems, Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft will be in the proverbial hot seats today in Washington as Congress examines the role of U.S. technology companies in repression of Internet usage by the Chinese government.

And U.S. Representative Chris Smith, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights, wants people to tune in via the web.

For the first time, Smith says, a Congressional hearing will be “blogged live” starting at 10 AM EST.

“Modern communications have empowered individuals to get their news from different sources, and blogs have become a regular news source for many Americans — particularly students and younger people,” Smith said in a statement from his office. “Live blogs from different events in Congress will enable more Americans to hear their elected representatives, allow for increased transparency and encourage greater civic participation.”

The hearing will be broadcast live at:

Smith, who represents the 4th Congressional District in New Jersey, is obviously using the web to drive home a point about freedom in China with the high-tech representatives.

“It is important to note that the freedoms that we enjoy in America allow individuals to publish information and news on the Web unfiltered — even from within the walls of Congress,” Smith said. “Those freedoms do not exist in China and individuals who attempt to speak freely are imprisoned and even tortured, and US corporations should not be aiding in that process.”

The hearing is titled “The Internet in China: A Tool for Suppression?”

Attorneys will be representing the U.S. high-tech quartet. Scheduled to testify are:

  • Mark Chandler, Vice President and General Counsel, Cisco Systems.

  • Jack Krumholtz, Director, Govt. Affairs and Associate General Counsel, Microsoft

  • Michael Callahan, General Counsel, Yahoo

  • Elliot Schrage, Vice President of Communications and Corporate Affairs, Google
  • The four are expected to come under tough questioning from both Democrats and Republicans.

    “Many pro-business and pro-democracy observers argue that the expansion of the Internet and trade will result in increased freedom of expression and political openness in China,” Smith’s office said in a statement. “Yet, despite recognizing that the ability to communicate openly is essential to breaking down the walls of communism and repression, several of the top US internet companies have aided and complied with the Chinese Government’s demand for censorship in order to enter the PRC market, in essence becoming a megaphone for communist propaganda and a tool for controlling public opinion.”

    The Associated Press said Democrat Tom Lantos of California is among those upset by what’s happening in China.

    “The hugely successful businesses that come before Congress … will have to account for their complicity in China’s culture of repression, and to begin to make amends,” The AP quoted Lantos as saying.

    Yahoo!, for example, has been accused of providing information to the Chinese government that led to the arrest of a human rights activist. Google has also been accused on tailoring searches to meet Chinese government requirements.

    Smith’s office, citing information from the OpenNet Initiative, said China has been especially effective in repressing Internet use.

    “Compared to similar efforts in other states, China’s filtering regime is pervasive, sophisticated, and effective. It comprises multiple levels of legal regulation and technical control,” the OpenNet Initiative has found. “It involves numerous state agencies and thousands of public and private personnel. It censors content transmitted through multiple methods, including web pages, web logs, on-line discussion forums, university bulletin board systems, and e-mail messages.”

    The coverage of this hearing should make for a very interesting blog.

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    Rick Smith is editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire.