Global Internet use continues to expand, with the highest growth rates in countries like China that restrict their citizens' access to the Web. U.S. lawmakers are pressing American Internet-related companies to take stronger steps to fight Web censorship by foreign governments, and have crafted legislation to that end. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington.
Human rights groups say scores of people are imprisoned worldwide as a result of Internet activities deemed politically unacceptable by their governments. Congress is considering a bill mandating that the United States will actively promote the uncensored use of the Internet, and deter U.S. businesses from cooperating with foreign governments that restrict their citizens' Internet access or persecute so-called "Web dissidents".
The Global Online Freedom Act has the backing of civil libertarians like Shiyu Zhou of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, who testified at a hearing of the Senate Human Rights and Law Subcommittee.
"Only when the U.S. shows more determination to keep the Internet open than the closed societies' will to seal it off, will there be the hope of information freedom and democracy for the citizens of closed societies," he said.
Many American corporations have vast Web-based operations in China and other countries with restrictive Internet policies. The U.S.-based Internet search engine Google, for instance, has a Chinese unit that filters out search results in accordance with the wishes of the Chinese government. U.S. technology giant Cisco has sold millions of dollars of products to the Chinese state agency responsible for policing the Internet.
How does Google justify its actions in China? The company's deputy general counsel, Nicole Wong, told the subcommittee it has little choice but to comply with government directives if it wants access to Chinese Web-users.
"What we found prior to 2006, when we first launched our local service on Google.com in China, is that Google.com would be frequently blocked, completely inaccessible to the people of China," she said. "And so we decided to offer a localized version on our Google.cn domain, which is compliant with Chinese law."
Wong says Google notifies its Chinese users that the search results it provides are filtered and not complete, but admits that the system is "imperfect."
Beyond Internet restrictions, there are real dangers for E-mail users in some countries. The Web firm Yahoo says it regrets that a Chinese dissident user of its E-mail service was tracked down and imprisoned. Even so, Yahoo says it cannot guarantee against a repeat of the incident. Yahoo deputy general counsel Michael Samway had this exchange with the chairman of the subcommittee, Senator Dick Durbin.
SAMWAY: "It is deeply troubling that people have gone to jail as a result of some connection to our company."
DURBIN: "And so, tomorrow, if Yahoo had a similar request from the Chinese government to disclose the identity of someone who had been involved in what they considered to be illegal conduct, what would your company do?"
SAMWAY: "Well, we currently have an investment in a company that runs the day-to-day operations of Yahoo China. That company complies with the law, as would any Chinese company."
Several corporate representatives testified that private firms alone cannot break down Internet barriers, and that the U.S. government has a role to play in pressuring foreign states to liberalize Web access.
There was no argument on that point from Republican subcommittee member Tom Coburn, who said the stakes in the battle for Internet freedom are huge.
"Nearly 1.5 billion people now use the Internet, 220 million of whom reside in China," he noted. "Information is power. That information can become freedom."
Backers of the Global Online Freedom Act hope the bill will be put to a vote in Congress in coming weeks. In the meantime, U.S. Web-related firms say they are working to establish an industry-wide code of conduct for operating in restrictive foreign countries.