- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The sponsor of a bill that would bar U.S. Internet firms from helping repressive regimes track down cyber-dissidents called Tuesday on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring it up for a vote before the Beijing Olympics next month.

“We don’t have a lot of time. It takes one thing: Speaker Pelosi to post the bill. And I think we’ll win,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican sponsoring the Global Online Freedom Act.

Mr. Smith’s bill would establish an office at the State Department that would be responsible for designating “Internet restricting countries” that censor political, religious and ideological content on the Web. It would bar Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and other U.S. companies from handing over personally identifiable information on users to government officials in repressive countries such as China.

Yahoo has been criticized for its role in several high-profile cases, including those of journalist Shi Tao and dissident Wang Xioaning, in which it handed over user data to Chinese police. Both Mr. Shi and Mr. Wang were arrested and jailed for 10 years on charges of subversion - a pretext commonly used to silence critics of the communist regime.

“Unfortunately, these corporate giants are partnering and are very complicit with one of the worst dictatorships in the world,” said Mr. Smith, who spoke with reporters Tuesday beside Jules Maaten, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who plans to introduce a similar bill before European lawmakers Thursday.

In testimony before Congress, Yahoo has said it has no choice but to cooperate with authorities in countries where it does business, a sentiment echoed by other technology companies who argue it is better to provide imperfect access to the Internet than none at all. But days after Chief Executive Officer Jerry Yang appeared before the House Foreign Relations Committee in November, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company settled a U.S. lawsuit brought by the families of Mr. Wang and Mr. Shi, both of whom are still in jail.

Yahoo in late 2005 sold a majority stake in its Hong Kong subsidiary to Alibaba.com, a Chinese firm, and has stressed it no longer is involved in the collection or retention of customer data.

Unlike search giants Yahoo and Google, most European Internet firms doing business in China and other repressive regimes are hardware and software companies, Mr. Maaten noted.

“It’s very easy for a European to say search engines shouldn’t do this and that because we don’t have many European search engines,” he said. “But I do not believe for a second that these companies are not under the same kinds of pressure that Google and Yahoo are.”

Mr. Smith said he has urged Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, to schedule a vote on his bill on several occasions, most recently in April, when Congress passed a resolution condemning China’s crackdown in Tibet. He said he hopes she will act before the Olympic Games begin in Beijing in August, or at least by the end of the session.

“I assume absolute good will,” he said of Mrs. 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.”

The bill cleared the House Foreign Affairs Committee in October.

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said that “the concern is there is some opposition and the committee is trying to find a better way.”

Mr. Smith’s bill, which has eight bipartisan co-sponsors, does not have a companion in the Senate. He said he is in talks with Senate colleagues about introducing one.

His bill has the support of more than a dozen nongovernmental organizations.

The Bush administration is not backing the bill, according to Mr. Smith, who called the experience “deja vu,” citing the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. That law was initially opposed by President Clinton and took two years to push through Congress after being referred to 11 subcommittees and four full committees, he said.

“We will stay active until we get it enacted into law,” he said of his Internet freedom bill.

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