Smith: Internet freedom bill has 'very good' prospects; early Dem support

It has been four years since Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) first introduced a bill that in part would penalize Web companies that turn over information to Internet-censoring countries.

Its first iteration in 2006 never reached the House floor. Neither did the bill's second version, pitched in 2007.

But the congressman stressed during an interview with The Hill on Friday that his Global Online Freedom Act now faces "very good" prospects for passage in 2010.

"It's an idea whose time is right now, it's come," stressed Smith, a co-founder of his chamber's Global Internet Freedom Caucus. "We've proven our point beyond any reasonable doubt."

According to Smith, that point is simple: Companies that abide by free speech and expression rules domestically should not be so quick to censor their content abroad. Consequently, his bill would address that concern by levying stiff penalties on companies whose Web practices result in the detention or torture of Web protesters. Moreover, the legislation would establish the Office of Global Internet Freedom as part of the State Department to identify and monitor countries that repress online speech.

According to Smith, a number of lawmakers have recently expressed support for his efforts, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom Smith described to The Hill as "very interested" in his proposal.

So too is Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, which would have early jurisdiction over the bill, Smith said.

Still, the congressman's legislation is the latest in a series of federal efforts to open up the Web marketplace — a cause long championed by private groups, including Reporters Without Borders, that has only recently piqued interest on Capitol Hill.

The issue's increased attention owes itself in part to Google's decision last month to cease filtering its search results in China — its response to a cyberattack that company executives say originated in the state. The fiasco has ultimately prompted lawmakers to question why, exactly, Google abided by Beijing's restrictions in the first place.

Members of Congress throughout March thus entered the long-standing debate over Web freedom at scores of hearings, both pressing and praising Google while asking other executives to explain their conduct and offer possible routes for federal action. A few lawmakers have since heeded those calls, forming Internet freedom caucuses in both chambers of Congress. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) has also promised to spearhead his own Web access legislation in the upper chamber.

But shoring up support in the private tech community could prove considerably more daunting. Already, a handful of Web companies have expressed doubt about key portions of Smith's bill that would hold them civilly responsible if they turn over information about dissident Web users to countries that police the Internet.

Among the growing number of skeptics is Cynthia Wong, the Ron Plesser Fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who told The Wall Street Journal in March that Smith's bill "would put companies in the position where they would have to choose between violating local law and violating U.S. law."

Yahoo took a much stronger stand earlier this year. Spokeswoman Amber Allman described the congressman's legislation in March as "noble" in its pursuit, but she stressed its scope "could ultimately mean that companies will have to cease providing information services in some countries."

"Yahoo will continue working with Congress on this legislation, to ensure that its goals can be achieved and that companies can continue to bring transformative technology to people in all parts of the world," she later added.

Microsoft was also unavailable for comment due to the holiday weekend. However, the company has previously defended its decision to continue filtering the Web in China — a position that prompted Smith last month to charge the company was "enabling tyranny."

"We appreciate that different companies may make different decisions based on their own experiences and views," the company said. "At Microsoft we remain committed to advancing free expression through active engagement in over 100 countries, even as we comply with the laws in every country in which we operate."

Google, however, has told lawmakers repeatedly that it supports Smith's bill.

Ultimately, Smith admitted on Friday his legislation's "right to private action" component may not survive early congressional scrutiny. But he stressed the bill would essentially be toothless if lawmakers stripped all of its penalty provisions in an attempt to assuage tech business leaders.

"If you're going to censor content that's non-violent political, non-violent religious expression ... we're going to hit that company with a significant fine," he said. "If you don't have an enforcement cap, or a penalty phase, you've essentially passed a sense of the Congress resolution."

It remains unclear whether the Internet freedom bill will even make it to the floor in 2010, as others matters like financial regulatory reform and cap-and-trade legislation dominate debate during a tough election year. Still, Smith said he would "continue to speak out" on the issue in the coming days, hoping to finish a work product that has spanned many years and sessions of Congress.

"It's slow process that we've been tenacious at," Smith said, noting he's working on the issue "all the time."

"But we're going to keep pushing until the concrete cracks," he said.

(This story was updated at 4 p.m.)

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