WASHINGTON — Piggybacking on Google's threat to withdraw from China over censorship issues, several lawmakers in Congress pushed Thursday for a vote on a bill that would regulate U.S. information-technology firms that deal with governments that use the Internet to spy on their own citizens or to hunt down dissidents.
A bipartisan group in the House of Representatives is hoping that Google's action will revive interest in the Global Online Freedom Act, which has passed various committees but so far has failed to reach the House floor. They called for the House Democratic leadership to put the bill up for a vote.
"What Google has done is a game-changer," said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., the author of the bill. "When they've (Google) had enough ... that should be a game-changer for the mindset on Capitol Hill. (Even) with all the balls in the air here from health care to everything else, we've got to get this bill passed."
The offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, D-Calif., didn't respond when they were asked whether the leadership will schedule a vote on the bill. Top congressional leaders are tied up in negotiating the final details of a health care overhaul bill, and also are treading delicately on questions that involve relations with rising superpower China.
Google said Tuesday that it might pull out of China because a sophisticated computer network attack that it suspected had originated there targeted the company's e-mail service and corporate infrastructure. Company officials think that the main goal of the attack was to hack into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. In addition to its pullout threat, Google said it had decided to stop censoring search results on Chinese Google sites.
Several lawmakers and human rights activists hailed Google's decision Thursday and urged such other Internet giants as Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco to follow suit.
"Thank you, Google, for standing up, for taking a principled stand as opposed to counting profits," said T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA. "We now challenge U.S. Internet companies to do what Google is doing."
Smith said the companies needed the federal government behind them to combat countries that curtailed Internet freedoms or used cyberspace as a tool of repression.
Smith's bill would require the State Department annually to list "Internet restricting countries," and it would prohibit U.S. Internet companies from storing any personally identifiable information from Internet service accounts within those countries.
It would require U.S. Internet companies to keep records of requests for information from the violating countries. The companies would have to notify the State Department and the Justice Department before they responded to requests from those countries.
Finally, the bill would forbid U.S. Internet companies from jamming U.S. government Web sites such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in such countries.
"A transnational attack on privacy is chilling, and Google's response sets a great example," Arvind Ganesan, a Human Rights Watch official, said in a statement. "At the same time, this incident underscores the need for governments and companies to develop policies that safeguard rights."
Lauren Gelman, a fellow at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, said that accomplishing that through legislation might be easier said than done, however.
Gelman said she supported government efforts to do something but questioned whether a one-size-fits-all approach would work.
"It's hard to craft into law a delicate balance of deploying technology that can benefit people or be used to spy on them," she said. "It all seems so sensational; it seems like it's almost in a spy novel."
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