U.S. Internet companies would face criminal penalties for turning over personal data to governments that use the information to suppress political dissent under legislation approved Oct. 23 by a U.S. House committee.
The Global Online Freedom Act of 2007, approved in a unanimous voice vote by the Foreign Affairs Committee, comes two weeks before the same panel plans to grill Yahoo officials about the companys role in providing the Chinese government with information that sent journalist Shi Tao to jail for a decade.
The bill would prohibit companies such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft 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.
"U.S. companies that originally thought they were helping bring freedom have found themselves—wittingly or unwittingly—part of a regime," Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., said before the vote. " "Dictatorships need two pillars to survive—propaganda and secret police. The Internet—if misused—gives them both in spades."
The legislation calls for civil penalties ranging up to $2 million for violations. The bill would also prohibit U.S. ISPs from blocking online content financed by the U.S. government and would establish an interagency office within the State Department charged with developing and implementing a global strategy to combat state-sponsored Internet jamming.
"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," Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D.-Calif., said in a statement.
Last year, Smith and Lantos headed a 7-hour hearing where Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems testified they have complied with Chinese censorship laws or provided personally identifiable information about Internet users to repressive regimes in countries where they do business.
During the hearing, Yahoo Senior Vice President and General Counsel Michael Callahan testified that the company had no information about the nature of the Chinese governments investigation into Tao, who was arrested by Chinese authorities after Yahoo turned over personally identifying information on him.
Click here to read more about how Internet users are trying to foil Chinas censors.
Earlier this summer, the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights rights organization, 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."
"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," Smith said.
Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis of technologys impact on government and politics.