Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday urged China to investigate cyber intrusions that led Google to threaten to pull out of that country — and challenged Beijing to openly publish its findings.
"Countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of Internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century," she said. Clinton said the U.S. and China "have different views on this issue, and we intend to address those differences candidly and consistently" as part of a cooperative relationship.
She cited China as among a number of countries where there has been "a spike in threats to the free flow of information" over the past year. She also named Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
Clinton made her remarks in a wide-ranging speech about Internet freedom and its place in U.S. foreign policy.
"Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world's networks," she said.
"They have expunged words, names and phrases from search engine results," Clinton said. "They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in nonviolent political speech."
Google said on Jan. 12 that it will remain in China only if the government relents on rules requiring the censorship of content the ruling communist party considers subversive. The ultimatum came after Google said it uncovered a computer attack that tried to plunder its software coding and the e-mail accounts of human rights activists protesting Chinese policies.
In response to Clinton's remarks, Google issued a statement welcoming her support for cyber security and Internet freedom.
"Free expression and security are important issues for governments everywhere, and at Google we are obviously great believers in the value to society of unfettered access to information," the company said. "We're excited about continuing our work with governments, human rights organizations and bloggers to promote free expression and increased access to information in the years ahead."
Communications companies and industry association officials also welcomed Clinton's remarks.
"Allowing policies that chip away at Internet freedom is one of the biggest failures of the past decade," said Ed Black, chief executive of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "But it's not too late to reverse this course and the Obama Administration seems to be paying attention."
State Department officials have said they intend soon to lodge a formal complaint with Chinese officials over the Google matter, which a senior Chinese government official said Thursday should not affect U.S.-China relations.
Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said in Beijing, "The Google case should not be linked with relations between the two governments and countries; otherwise, it's an over-interpretation," according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The Xinhua report did not mention censorship, instead referring to Google's "disagreements with government policies."
In a passage of her speech before she explicitly mentioned the Google matter, Clinton spoke broadly about the connection between information freedom and international business.
"Countries that censor news and information must recognize that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech," she said. "If businesses in your nation are denied access to either type of information, it will inevitably reduce growth."
"Increasingly, U.S. companies are making the issue of information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions," she added. "I hope that their competitors and foreign governments will pay close attention to this trend."
She then raised the Google case.
"We look to Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review of the cyber intrusions that led Google to make its announcement," she said. "We also look for that investigation and its results to be transparent."
Clinton challenged corporations worldwide to stand up against Internet censorship.
"Censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere," she said. "And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand. This needs to be part of our national brand."
Clinton made a particularly pointed remark about the implications of North Korea's heavy censorship of outside voices.
"This lopsided access to information increases both the likelihood of conflict and the probability that small disagreements could escalate," she said.