Oct 23, 2007
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 US companies have at times in the past provided the technology to crush human rights. For instance, IBM were good soldiers with the Gestapo. Now, US companies, that originally thought they were helping bring freedom have found themselves—wittingly or unwittingly—part of a regime,”
Rep. Chris 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,”
Rep. Chris Smith added.
During Committee consideration, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-CA) spoke out in support of Rep. Chris 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,” Chairman Lantos said. “But censorship of the Internet continues in many repressive countries. Activists play a cat-and-mouse game with police, opening new websites 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, Rep. Chris 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. 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 US technology companies from cooperating with repressive regimes so that others do not meet Shi Tao’s fate,”
Rep. Chris Smith said.
Rep. Chris Smith recently joined Chairman Lantos to request Yahoo executives return to Capitol Hill to clarify their misleading testimony in 2006. “It is bad enough that U.S. technology firms may have helped a ruthless regime intimidate, arrest and persecute pro-democracy advocates, but now it appears that some in the industry are attempting to cover-up those despicable acts so they can continue their business dealings in China. Congress must pass the Global Online Freedom Act to end shameful practice of American IT companies doing the Chinese Government’s dirty work,”
said Rep. Chris Smith.
Rep. Chris Smith first introduced the “Global Online Freedom Act” during the 109th Congress. The bill was approved by the House subcommittee that had jurisdiction of human rights during the 109th Congress, but the session ended before the bill could be brought before the full House for a vote.
Specifically, the “Global Online Freedom Act of 2007”:
- Prohibits US companies from disclosing to foreign officials of an “Internet Restricting Country” information that personally identifies a particular user except for “legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes;”
- Creates a private right of action for individuals aggrieved by the disclosure of such personal identification to file suit in any US district court;
- Prohibits US internet service providers from blocking online content of US government or US-government financed sites;
- Establishes a new interagency office within the State Department charged with developing and implementing a global strategy to combat state-sponsored internet jamming by repressive countries;
- Requires the new Office of Global Internet Freedom to monitor filtered terms; and to work with Internet companies and the non-profit sector to develop a voluntary code of minimum corporate standards related to Internet freedom;
- Requires Internet companies to disclose to the new Office of Global Internet Freedom the terms they filter and the parameters they must meet in order to do business in Internet Restricting Countries;
- Requires the President to submit to Congress an annual report designating as an “Internet Restricting Country” any nation that systematically and substantially restrict internet freedom;
- Establishes civil penalties for businesses (up to $2 million) and individuals (up to $100,000) for violations of the new requirements;
- Mandates a government feasibility study to determine what type of restrictions and safeguards should be imposed on the export of computer equipment which could be used in an Internet Restricting Country to restrict Internet freedom.