Congressional Panel Approves Rules for U.S. Net Firms

Steve Javors
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee that concentrates on Africa, global human rights and international operations unanimously approved the Global Online Freedom Act that seeks to enforce strict regulations on U.S. companies doing business in countries that censor or restrict Internet access.

Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., introduced the bill in February. Smith proposed the bill after politicians lashed out at Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco Systems for agreeing to what they insist is state-sponsored censorship in China.

According to the bill, U.S. firms would be prohibited from keeping any electronic communications that contain personal information on servers in what the U.S. government deems as “Internet-restricting countries.” The rules also mention that these companies cannot turn over their subscriber lists to those governments, except for law enforcement purposes.

Countries that have been blacklisted by the U.S. for heavy Internet censorship include China — which has taken the brunt of the U.S.’s ire — Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam.

“The growth of the Internet and other information technologies can be a force for democratic change if the information is not subject to political censorship,” Smith said in a statement.

Under the terms of the bill, search engine companies would be required to give the U.S. State Department's Office of Global Internet Freedom an itemized rundown of how its search results have been restricted or censored in such countries.

“[The bill] could provoke greater restrictions, or even the withdrawal of Internet services in China, which would leave the Chinese people with even less ability to access information and communicate with others,” said Jack Krumholz, Microsoft’s managing director of federal government affairs.

Restrictions in the first draft of Smith’s proposal would have barred search engine companies from agreeing to remove “protected filter terms” from search results in order to appease repressive governments. The banned terms, determined by the Office of Global Internet Freedom, would have included “keywords, terms and phrases relating to human rights, democracy, religious free exercise and peaceful political dissent.”