Bill would bar US firms from putting servers in China

Global Online Freedom Act would also prohibit U.S. search engine companies from altering the results of searches in Internet-restricting countries

A U.S. lawmaker on Thursday introduced legislation that would bar U.S. Internet companies from locating Web servers inside "Internet-restricting" countries such as China and Vietnam, with prison sentences for those who don't comply.

Representative Christopher Smith's bill, called the Global Online Freedom Act, would also prohibit U.S. search engine companies from altering the results of searches in counties such as China, and would prohibit U.S. Internet companies from giving personally identifiable customer information to the governments of Internet-restricting countries, expect for "legitimate" law enforcement requests reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The bill includes penalties of up to five years in prison and a $2 million for officers of companies that willfully violate the restrictions. Customers of Internet companies "aggrieved" by violations of the law could also sue the companies in civil court.

By requiring Internet companies to locate servers outside restrictive countries, the bill would make it harder for their governments to force the companies to turn over information about customers, Smith said Wednesday.

"Technology companies in the United States have succumbed to pressure by authoritarian foreign governments with information about Internet users that has led to imprisonment of cyber dissidents, in violation of the corporate responsibility of such companies to protect and uphold human rights," the bill says in its introduction.

Smith, a New Jersey Republican, introduced the bill a day after he chaired a U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee hearing on Internet freedom in China. During the hearing, Smith and other committee members scolded Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems, saying the companies have helped Chinese officials censor the Internet there.

Smith, chairman of the committee's Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations subcommittee, said Wednesday the four companies' work in China amounted to a "sickening collaboration" with the Chinese government.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said Thursday the company was evaluating the Smith bill. A Microsoft spokeswoman said officials there had not yet seen the bill.

At the Wednesday hearing, Smith and other lawmakers criticized Yahoo because subsidiary Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) Ltd. provided e-mail account information to the Chinese government that led to jail sentences for a Chinese political activist and a journalist.

They complained about Google offering a censored version of its search engine in China and about Microsoft removing from MSN Spaces a blog written by a Chinese journalist. Committee members also questioned whether Cisco is helping the Chinese government block access to some Web sites by selling it network management equipment.

"For the sake of market share and profits, leading U.S. companies like Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens," Smith said at the hearing. "They have aided and abetted the Chinese regime ... propagating the message of the dictatorship unabated and supporting the secret police in a myriad of ways, including surveillance and invasion of privacy, in order to effectuate the massive crackdown on its citizens."

The four companies defended their work in China, saying the presence of the Internet there can help move the country toward democratic ideals. Google's Google.cn Web site censors some politically sensitive terms such as "Tiananmen Square," but Google doesn't censor most content, said Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of global communications and public affairs.

"Our hope is that our mix of measures, though far from ideal, would accomplish more for Chinese citizens' access to information than the alternative," Schrage said Wednesday. "In an imperfect world, we made an imperfect decision."

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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