Web Censorship Opposition Embroils Beijing Olympics

The Beijing Games give human rights groups a new platform for targeting Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other IT companies that do business with China. Amnesty International launches a social media campaign defending human rights in the run up to the China Olympics.

Despite a lukewarm response in Congress to his legislation aimed at banning Internet companies from cooperating with repressive governments, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., found a new supporter July 16: Jules Maaten, a Dutch member of the European Parliament.

In a Capitol Hill conference with Smith, Maaten said he plans to introduce a bill in the European Parliament modeled after Smith's legislation, the Global Online Freedom Act (PDF), which would make it a crime for companies like Google and Yahoo to disclose personally identifiable information to Internet-restricting countries.

"Europe should promote freedom of speech as the basis of the Internet, especially now that the Olympic Games are approaching," Maaten said. "We need to create more transparency surrounding the involvement of European Internet companies in online censorship. Human rights also need to be protected online through legislation that contains sanctions."

Smith has also used the Beijing Olympics as platform to promote his legislation. In a late April joint press conference with Reporters Without Borders, Smith said, "We ... need to take action to protect journalists and pro-democracy activists who may otherwise become the next victims after the spotlight provided by the Olympics is gone from the world's center stage."

At his July 16 press conference, Smith urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to schedule a vote on his bill before the Olympics begin July 31. "Unfortunately, these corporate giants are partnering and are very complicit with one of the worst dictatorships in the world," Smith said. "We don't have a lot of time. It takes one thing: Speaker Pelosi to post the bill. And I think we'll win."

Smith's bill passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in October, but the legislation has subsequently languished. A spokesperson for Pelosi's office said the bill still needs work. There is no companion bill in the Senate and the legislation does not have the support of the Bush administration.

"I assume absolute good will," Smith said of his dealings with Pelosi. "But I also know that the clock is running out. For the next political prisoner who gets incarcerated, tortured and maybe killed, time is not on their side."

While Maaten introduced his legislation in Europe and Smith sparred with Pelosi, Amnesty International Australia also used the Olympics to promote a social media campaign defending human rights in China. In the run up to the Beijing games, Amnesty International will use a series of content pieces for the Australian blog community and social media groups to take up, use and pass on to their friends as a sign of support for freedom of speech.

"The Social Media campaign will be used to confront Google, Yahoo and Microsoft for agreeing to Chinese censorship laws that block the freedom of reporting and expression over the Internet," the group stated in a news release.

Yahoo has been under fire for almost two years for providing the Chinese government with information that sent journalist Shi Tao to jail for a decade. A reporter and editor for a Chinese newspaper, Shi was arrested in his home after posting material under a pseudonym about a government crackdown on media and democracy activists on an overseas Web site, Democracy Forum. The Chinese government found Shi in Beijing after Yahoo provided information about his e-mail account, including his IP address, log-on history and the contents of his e-mail.

Yahoo later settled a civil lawsuit with Shi's family and publicly apologized to Shi's mother during a congressional hearing.