Lawmakers push legislation that would prohibit U.S. Internet companies doing business with China from sharing customer information with Beijing
Riding the massive publicity wave generated by Google’s current censorship dispute with China, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) on 14 Jan. urged his fellow lawmakers to take up his legislation that would make it crime for U.S. companies to share personal user information with “Internet-restricting” countries.
According to Smith, without a strong U.S. law restricting the sharing of information with countries that have restrictive Internet policies, American firms are “inevitably forced to be more complicit in the repressive government’s censorship and surveillance.”
Google said on 12 Jan. it will stop censoring searches on its Google.cn and reconsider the feasibility of even doing business there after the search giant reported cyber attacks from within China aimed at gaining access to the Gmail accounts of human rights activists. Google also said 20 other companies from a wide range of businesses had suffered similar attacks.
The Global Online Freedom Act (HR 2271) would also create an Office of Global Internet Freedom at the State Department responsible for coordinating Internet freedom efforts and conducting research. Smith originally introduced the legislation in 2007 but it failed to gain traction in the U.S. House of Representatives. Smith re-introduced the bill in 2009.
Four years ago, Smith chaired a U.S. House committee hearing sharply critical of Google’s decision to do business with the Chinese government. Yahoo and Microsoft were also targets of the committee. At the time, Google defended its decision as a “judgment that Google.cn will make a meaningful – though imperfect – contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China.” Google would later endorse Smith’s bill.
“I have been meeting with Google executives, and they’ve known for some time that their decision had proven mistaken and China was growing more repressive,” Smith said in a statement. “Google deserves to be praised for the decision. It is also a blow against the cynical silence of so many — including the Obama administration — about the Chinese government’s human rights abuses,” Smith said in a statement.
Following the cyber attacks reported by Google, which shared its information with the U.S. government, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “We have been briefed by Google on these allegations, which raise very serious concerns and questions. We look to the Chinese government for an explanation.”
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke took a slightly different tack, questioning the security risks of doing business with China.
“The recent cyber intrusion that Google attributes to China is troubling to the U.S. government and American companies doing business in China,” Locke said in a statement. “This incident should be equally troubling to the Chinese government. The…administration encourages the government of China to work with Google and other U.S. companies to ensure a climate for secure commercial operations in the Chinese market.”
In addition to Google, Smith’s bill has been endorsed by a number of activist groups including Reporters without Borders and Amnesty International. Three House committees approved the legislation in the 110th Congress but Smith said heavy lobbying against it — there was concern about putting companies in the middle of disputes between countries — prevented the bill from reaching the House floor.
“Google’s announcement has made it clear: the situation has grown too serious to let hobbyists stop an important bill like this,” Smith said. “Now we see that every time a repressive regime cracks down, Internet censoring, blocking and sirveillance is one the most powerful weapons in its armory.”
Smith’s bill earned a major backer in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said, “It’s time for action: let’s move this bill. It is essential that technology companies not assist in efforts that violate human rights or prohibit the free exchange of ideas.”