Google, Yahoo!, Cisco and Microsoft are all guilty of helping China deny free speech rights to its citizens, according to U.S. Congressman Chris Smith.

The Republican representative from New Jersey lambasted Google, Yahoo!, Cisco and Microsoft in a letter to the Wall Street Journal last week, citing instances in which the companies have helped the Chinese government identify and punish Chinese nationals responsible for pro-democracy postings on the Internet.

This is not the first time U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith has accused U.S. firms of “working hand in glove with dictators,” by turning over Internet records to repressive governments seeking to ferret out political dissidents.  To curtail the practice, Smith is sponsoring legislation designed to  prohibit U.S. Internet companies from cooperating with governments trying to track down and punish democracy advocates. Specifically, Smith’s “Global Online Freedom Act of 2007” bill would make it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments who use that information to suppress dissent.  

In his letter to the Journal, Smith recounted testimony at public hearings last April in which representatives of the four Internet companies admitted to participating in government-mandated Internet censorship, or aiding investigations aimed at identifying political activists. "They all acknowledged that their companies have enabled dictatorships to censor democracy and human rights promotion on the Internet," Smith wrote, adding  that "Yahoo! and Cisco have even helped the Chinese government incarcerate Internet users for pro-democracy activity."

In addition to China, Smith has named eight other countries to his list of authoritarian governments. A statement issued by the congressman in January also accused Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam of actively blocking, restricting and monitoring the Internet communications of its citizenry.

Smith’s bill would establish civil penalties of up to $2 million for businesses  found guilty of aiding a repressive regime.  Individuals could be fined up  to $100,000 for violations of the new requirements. The legislation would also earmark $50 million for creating an Office of Global Internet Freedom, charged with monitoring abuses and developing a voluntary code of conduct.

Last month, a consoritum of tech companies announced they were already collaborating on their own code of conduct, evidently hoping to soften criticism. Google, Microsoft, Vodafone and Yahoo! revealed that work was underway “to produce a set of principles guiding company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights.” To facilitate the process, the companies have teamed with a variety of organizations, including Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

"I'm an Internet expert too. It's all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired." -- North Korean Supreme Commander Kim Jong-il

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