Live: Pixel Event Pixel Watch Fire TV vs. Frame TV Hellraiser Review Audible Deal Prime Day Pizza Deals Best Sheets
Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?
No, thank you

House panel OKs global rules for U.S. Net firms

Bill is reponse to reports that tech companies have been tailoring offerings to China's censorship regime.

A congressional bill that would impose strict new obligations on American tech companies doing business with "Internet-restricting countries" like China cleared its first hurdle to becoming law on Thursday.

The Global Online Freedom Act, introduced in February by Rep. Christopher Smith, passed by a unanimous voice vote in the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee that focuses on Africa, global human rights and international operations.

"The growth of the Internet and other information technologies can be a force for democratic change if the information is not subject to political censorship," Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said in a statement Thursday.

Smith proposed the bill just days after a daylong congressional hearing at which politicians lashed out at representatives from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and Cisco Systems for compliance with China's state-sponsored censorship regime.

The concerns among politicians flared up after reports that, under pressure from the Chinese government, Microsoft had deleted a journalist's blog, Yahoo had turned over information leading to the conviction of at least one Chinese journalist, and Google was offering a restricted search service there. Politicians also accused Cisco's hardware of aiding in filtering out content, although company representatives explained that the same features are available on all such devices they sell worldwide.

Some of those companies have said they have no choice but to comply with the laws in all of the countries where they do business.

Strict new rules
The approved bill attempts to target those practices directly. Under its list of "minimum corporate standards," American businesses would be barred from keeping any electronic communication, such as e-mail, that contains personally identifiable information on servers or other storage facilities in "Internet-restricting countries." The rules would also prohibit them from turning over personal information about their subscribers to governments in those locales except for "legitimate law enforcement purposes."

All search engine providers would be required to give the U.S. State Department's Office of Global Internet Freedom a detailed breakdown of how their search results have been restricted or censored in such countries. All Web content hosts would have to supply a list of URLs that have been removed or blocked there.

Internet service providers could also face fines of up to $2 million per offense and imprisonment for blocking access to any U.S. government-sponsored Web site or content, such as Voice of America, in the blacklisted countries.

Although China has taken center stage, the bill says the rules would also apply to dealings with Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Laos, North Korea, Tunisia and Vietnam--along with any other country on which the U.S. government decides to bestow an "Internet-restricting" designation.

Microsoft's managing director of federal government affairs, Jack Krumholz, called the Global Online Freedom Act's approach "unproductive." He said in a statement Thursday that the bill "could provoke greater restrictions, or even the withdrawal of Internet services in China, which would leave the Chinese people with even less ability to access information and communicate with others."

Yahoo declined to reveal whether it supported the bill. Spokeswoman Mary Osako said in a statement, "We look forward to continuing to work with the U.S. Department of State's Office of Global Internet Freedom, Congress and our industry peers to develop reasonable measures and policies that will promote Internet freedom around the world."

Google spokesman John Murchinson said the search giant hadn't yet reviewed the approved bill but believes "that our approach in China advances our mission of making all the world's information universally accessible and useful." Cisco representatives were not immediately available for comment.

The human rights group Reporters Without Borders, which has been pressuring Yahoo on its alleged Chinese cooperation, applauded the bill's approval, though spokeswoman Lucie Morillon said it could have gone even further.

The original version of Smith's bill, for instance, would have barred search engine companies from agreeing to remove "protected filter terms" from search results in order to serve the interests of restrictive governments. That content, to be determined by the Office of Global Internet Freedom, would have included "key words, terms and phrases relating to human rights, democracy, religious free exercise and peaceful political dissent."

Despite that apparent compromise, Morillon said, "we believe it's going to help make the Internet freer and help protect the privacy of users in repressive countries," she said.