Government Technology

Act Would Criminalize U.S. Corporate Collusion with Repressive Regimes

October 24, 2007 By

As the House Foreign Affairs Committee seeks answers from Yahoo about its role in the arrest of a Chinese journalist, Congress took a major step forward today in preventing U.S. technology companies from aiding regimes who restrict access to the Internet when the Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed legislation authored by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) that would criminalize such activities.

Rep. Chris Smith's bill -- the "Global Online Freedom Act of 2007" (H.R. 275) -- will strengthen the federal government's new strategy to promote online freedom by prohibiting U.S. Internet companies from cooperating with repressive regimes that restrict information about human rights and democracy on the Internet and use personally identifiable information to track down and punish democracy activists. The bill would make it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments who use that information to suppress dissent.

"History shows that U.S. companies have at times in the past provided the technology to crush human rights. For instance, said U.S. Representative Chris Smith in a release, "IBM were good soldiers with the Gestapo. Now, U.S. companies, that originally thought they were helping bring freedom have found themselves -- wittingly or unwittingly -- part of a regime," Smith said during committee consideration of his legislation.

"Dictatorships need two pillars to survive -- propaganda and secret police. The Internet -- if misused -- gives them both in spades," Smith added.

During Committee consideration, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) spoke out in support of Smith's bill which passed the Committee in a unanimous recorded vote.

"The Internet should be a tool for good and one that helps to promote American values," Lantos said. "But censorship of the Internet continues in many repressive countries. Activists play a cat-and-mouse game with police, opening new Web sites to provide more information as soon as old ones are blocked or shut down. In this cat-and-mouse game, American companies should -- just like the American government -- stand with those promoting freedom, rather than with the police who seek to shut down the dissidents and their message of democracy. I appreciate Chris Smith's bringing this legislation before Congress to help support freedom of expression abroad."

In February 2006, Smith convened a landmark seven-hour hearing at which representatives from major tech Internet firms Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Cisco Systems testified under oath that they have complied with Chinese censorship laws and/or provided personally identifiable information about Internet users to repressive regimes in countries where they do business.

It was during that hearing that Yahoo Senior Vice President and General Counsel Michael Callahan --- while under oath --- alleged in his opening remarks that the company had no information about the nature of the investigation into Shi Tao, who was arrested by Chinese Police after Yahoo turned over personally identifying information on him. Tao has since been sentenced to 10 years in prison for "divulging state secrets abroad."

The Dui Hua Foundation, a leading organization promoting human rights in China, has since released a document detailing evidence that Yahoo was told that the information requested related to an investigation into Tao for "illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities."

"Shi Tao is unjustly serving time in prison as a result of information Yahoo provided to Chinese authorities," said Smith. "Moreover, Yahoo officials who came before my committee -- during a hearing I chaired -- in sworn testimony said they knew nothing 'about the nature of the investigation' into Shi Tao. The Global Online Freedom Act will prohibit U.S.

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