Congress Threatens to Regulate U.S. IT Firms Operating Abroad
Cross posted from The Heartland Institute : Info Tech & Telecom News
By Brien Farley
August 1, 2008
The overseas activities of U.S. information technology firms have come under increasing scrutiny as the U.S. Senate considers regulating the firms more closely.
The matter was raised at a May 20 hearing of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The hearing focused on "Global Internet Freedom: Corporate Responsibility and the Rule of Law."
Discussed at the hearing was the extent to which U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Cisco, and Yahoo may be facilitating repressive regimes' efforts to censor free expression on the Internet.
"U.S. companies face difficult challenges when dealing with repressive governments," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), chairman of the subcommittee, in his opening statement. "However, these companies have a moral obligation to protect freedom of expression, a fundamental right that has enabled them to make billions of dollars. There is no question that they have fallen short of the mark on more than one occasion."
Durbin later added, "If American companies are unable to regulate themselves effectively, it may be time for Congress to step in."
A bill by which Congress might "step in" is the Global Online Freedom Act (HR 275) introduced by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) in January 2007. The measure would make it a crime for U.S. companies to disclose personal information to governments of identified Internet-restricting countries.
In addition, HR 275 would create a right for aggrieved individuals to file suit against these companies, prohibit companies from blocking U.S. government sites, set up a State Department Office of Global Internet Freedom to which these companies must report, and establish civil penalties up to $2 million for violations of any of these requirements.
The Global Online Freedom Act has seen little movement in Congress since its introduction. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the China Information Center, are pushing for Congress to pass it quickly so it will be in place before the Beijing Olympics.
Durbin has not proposed any additional legislation since the May 20 subcommittee hearing.
On the Defensive
At the hearing, Mark Chandler, senior vice president for legal services, general counsel, and secretary of Cisco Systems, denied accusations Cisco designed products to accommodate political censorship.
"The tools built into our products that enable site filtering are the same the world over, whether sold to governments, companies, or network operators," said Chandler.
Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel for Google, emphasized the company's role in the use of the Internet to air political and religious views.
"Even in countries where governments engage in heavy censorship, the Internet has nevertheless proven to be an effective tool for sharing information and promoting political change," Wong said.
Nonetheless, Google, Cisco, and Yahoo acknowledged their products and services have been blocked and used by repressive regimes for censorship and intimidation.
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A note from Radarsite: It's becoming fascinating to watch these repressive regimes scrambling to attempt to exert some official control over the wild, wild west of the internet. Something tells me it's a hopeless endeavor. - rg