Sounds scary: “The Global Online Freedom Act”

Freedom Fries, the Freedom Tower, and now the Global Online Freedom Act. I get nervous whenever you have officials writing legislation for the Internet, because usually it’s about less freedom, not more. The news about the proposed law targeting tech companies in China sounds like no exception:

Nearly every U.S. company with a Web site located in China will have to move it elsewhere or its executives would face prison terms of up to a year, according to proposed legislation expected to be introduced this week in the U.S. Congress.

A draft version of the bill reviewed by CNET represents the first serious attempt to rewrite the ground rules controlling how U.S. Internet companies may interact with foreign governments. If enacted, it would dramatically change the business practices of corporations with operations in China, Iran, Vietnam and other nations deemed to be overly “Internet-restricting.”

The highly anticipated proposal, created by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) in response to recent reports about censorship in China by Google, Yahoo and others, also makes it unlawful to filter search results or turn over information about users to certain governments unless the U.S. Justice Department approves. It would also impose new export restrictions to those nations.

Well, I guess it all deppends on what your definition of “freedom” is. Liveblogging the hearings, Rebecca Mackinnon writes,

So now what? I hope that this draft legislation will be the beginning of a long and constructive process. I would like to see detailed analysis from all potentially affected U.S. technology companies as to whether they think this legislation would enable them to continue doing business in China, but more ethically. Several companies have said they would welcome legislation that would hold U.S. companies to common ethical standards. So now I hope that American corporations will engage with lawmakers to craft the most effective legislation that enables them to do good while still doing business. I agree, it is better for them to be engaged with China and doing business there rather than not. The issue is with the specifics of their businesses and business conduct.

I hope the noble goal Rebecca envisages is truly viable. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that adhering to an American code of ethics and doing business in China is like trying to mix oil and water. You simply have to bite the bullet and pay the bribes and deal with the corruption and facilitate the censorship if you plan to set up shop there. I can’t see how this can be legislated away by a piece of paper in Washington. I can’t see how this piece of paper will be the soap that makes the oil and water mix. I’ll try to keep an open mind, but looking at the preliminary descriptions of the “Global Online Freedom Act” doesn’t make me any more optimistic.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

It actually doesn’t seem that bad to me. “bite the bullet and pay the bribes”, yes, but is this “facilitate the corruption” thing really an established tradition ? Or should we try to fight it before it really becomes one, as the bribes have ?

Such a bill will weaken the “if I don’t do it, one of my competitors may” argument google and the like come up with. And, more importantly maybe, it will give them a solid excuse when dealing with the chinese government:”Our law forbids us to do that”, etc.

February 17, 2006 @ 7:37 am | Comment

Capitalism, Capos, or Cop-Outs?

The U.S. Congress is facing more than issues of the Internet in China. It is facing the very core of whether the U.S. is serious about its values, including its commercial values. Further, the same technology and business practices at…

February 17, 2006 @ 8:31 am | Comment

for God’s sake,liberals please support the act, you should do something to stop the corruption,rather than always ‘engage’ them.
REAILTY BASED COMMUNITY,HEHE. wHAT THAT MEAN? always accept established rules. leagally or tacit?

February 17, 2006 @ 7:29 pm | Comment

Umm… paying bribes by US companies to foreign officials to get business is illegal.

Didn’t you have a post here a few years back, Richard, on some US company having to pay fines for bribing Chinese officials?

February 17, 2006 @ 9:33 pm | Comment

Yes Tom; it was Lucent.

February 18, 2006 @ 7:35 am | Comment

I can’t see the bill being passed in its present form – and probably not at all. The hearings themselves went more or less as I had anticipated – much grandstanding and not enough disclosure (though I was happy to see Yahoo disclose that it did not recieve any warrants in Hong Kong). Banning China-based servers is a non-starter, but there are some things in the GOFA that I would like to see passed – that companies would be obliged to disclose what they have been told to censor and when they have recieved a legal order and what it contains. Those would be minimally invasive and would bring a touch more transparency to both China and corporate America.

February 19, 2006 @ 5:18 am | Comment

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