Wednesday, American companies at the vanguard of the information future are likely to get grilled about practices reminiscent of the 20th century - such as censorship and aiding political repression.
A US House of Representatives panel will look into high-profile cases where Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo worked with China to restrict access to material or reveal the identity of users with dissident postings. Cisco is also implicated. But lawmakers eager to end such cooperation may find it hard to do so, at least in Yahoo's case.
A deal in October may insulate the Internet giant. Because it gave up a majority stake of its China service to a Chinese company, Yahoo argues that decisions about cooperating with Chinese officials lie with that company, which has obligations to obey Beijing, not Washington.
That move has human rights activists fuming, especially after last week, when Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB) charged Yahoo with helping authorities in 2003 to capture Li Zhi, an anticorruption reformer now serving an eight-year prison term. Yahoo says the case is under investigation and declined further comment.
Some in Congress are fuming about the practice. "It's like turning Anne Frank over to the Nazis," says Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, one of two subcommittees jointly holding Wednesday's hearings. One of his suggestions: Require companies to locate e-mail servers outside countries deemed repressive by the State Department.
It's unclear what jurisdiction Congress would have over Yahoo, he adds. "That's part of what the hearings ... and our probe will seek to uncover."