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updated 5/20/2008 5:53:50 PM ET 2008-05-20T21:53:50

A Cisco Systems Inc. executive told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that comments in an internal document about China's goal to "combat" a religious group did not reflect the company's views on censorship.

The PowerPoint presentation, which described China's technology status, included a slide that referred to goals to stop network-related crimes, guarantee the security and services of a public network and "combat 'Falun Gong' evil religion and other hostiles." Falun Gong is a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government, which considers it a dangerous cult.

"In no case does the document propose that any Cisco products be provided to facilitate the political goals of the government and no reference to applications of our products to the goals of censorship or monitoring," Cisco general counsel Mark Chandler told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on human rights and the law.

The subcommittee heard testimony from Cisco, Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. executives about how U.S. Internet and technology companies do business with certain governments that censor and suppress the free speech of their citizens.

Chandler said that Cisco regrets that comments from a Chinese government official were included in the 2002 presentation, which also mentioned other technology projects.

However, Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the humans rights group Global Internet Freedom Consortium, said Cisco's presentation offered planning, construction, technical training and other services to help China improve law enforcement and security network operations.

"Cisco can no longer assure Congress that Cisco China had not been and is not now an accomplice in partnering with China's Internet repression," he said during the hearing. "And, whether directly or indirectly, in the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and other peaceful citizens in China."

U.S. companies have come under an enormous amount of scrutiny and criticism as they do business in countries, such as China, that actively limit citizen access to information on the Web or who have used personally identifiable information to track down dissidents.

"This is not a black and white issue. This is not an easy issue" said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the subcommittee's chair.

Since the start of 2007, Google services — including its YouTube video sharing, blogging and social networking sites — have been blocked in whole or in part in 27 countries, such as China, Turkey and Myanmar, said Nicole Wong, Google's deputy general counsel.

While American tech companies face challenges in dealing with repressive governments, Durbin said those difficulties doesn't excuse those that have fallen short of their moral obligation, which could be made into a legal obligation.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., last year introduced a House bill that would bar U.S. Internet companies from turning over personally identifiable information to governments that use it to suppress dissent. If the tech companies gave up information, they could face criminal penalties. Durbin said the Senate may consider similar legislation.

Yahoo has been a target of U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups for the last two years after admitting it provided information to Chinese authorities that led to the arrests and imprisonment of two Chinese journalists.

Since then, the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based company has settled a lawsuit with the journalists' families and established a human rights fund to provide humanitarian and legal aid to dissidents.

Both Google and Yahoo said the U.S. government and other countries need to make Internet freedom a top priority.

"We have asked the U.S. government to use its leverage — through trade relationships, bilateral and multilateral forums, and other diplomatic means — to create a global environment where Internet freedom is a priority and where people are no longer imprisoned for expressing their views online," said Michael Samway, Yahoo's vice president and general counsel.

However, Arvind Ganesan, a program director at Human Rights Watch, said companies, including Google, aren't taking their ethical principles seriously.

Over the last 18 months, industry, academics and human rights groups have been working on a voluntary code of conduct for companies doing business in repressive countries. The code, when finished, would include an enforcement process and independent monitoring, an element some companies are fighting.

Although a voluntary approach is a good start, Ganesan said, it likely won't go far enough. Human Rights Watch endorses a regulatory framework, including penalties to hold companies accountable.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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