Cracking The 'Great Firewall Of China'

Chinese Internet surfers play online games on their computer stations at an Internet cafe in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006. Internet companies facing hearings Wednesday before angry U.S. lawmakers say they can't resist China's effort to censor the Web on their own. But industry analysts say that even if Washington tried to enforce free-speech standards, it is likely to have little effect.

The big Internet companies say they have to play by China's rules if they want to do business in China — and that means going along with government censorship. But as CBS News correspondent Sandra Hughes reports, that contention isn't going down well with some U.S. lawmakers.

"Can you say in English are you ashamed of what you and your company and the other companies have done?" Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., asked Google spokesman Elliott Schrage at a hearing Wednesday.

Replied Schrage, "I don't think it's fair to say that we're ashamed of what we've done."

Rep. Christopher Smith, D-N.J., went even further, likening the companies' cooperation with China to helping Nazi Germany.

"If the secret police a half-century ago asked where Anne Frank was hiding, would the correct answer be to hand over the information in order to comply with local laws?" he asked.

Yahoo officials admit to handing over information that helped send Chinese dissidents to prison. But Yahoo senior vice president Michael Callahan says U.S. companies that want to do business in China "ultimately face a choice — comply with Chinese laws or leave."

The incentives to play ball with the Chinese government are enormous: More than 110 million Chinese use the Internet, and that number will only continue to grow.

But more freedom for Chinese Web surfers may be on the way.

Roger Dingledine, a 28-year-old computer programmer, is doing what the big companies are not. He has created an anonymous Web browser called Tor that lets Chinese computer users access Web sites without anyone knowing — not even the Chinese secret police.

"It's all about freedom of speech and its all about freedom of learning," says Dingledine. "There are tens of thousands of people in China right now who are using Tor. It's one of the tools that are available for them to get around the firewall."

Dingledine's browser isn't the only way around the Great Firewall of China. There's everything from online free-speech sites to everyday folks in other countries adopting a blog so people a world away in China can use their uncensored servers.

And China may be feeling the pressure. In a rare move, the government tried to publicly defend its Internet controls — something U.S. Internet companies have had a hard time doing.

"In an imperfect world, we had to make an imperfect choice," Schrage says.

It's a choice no one seems willing to go back on.