Google, Yahoo zero in on Internet 'freedom' bill

Nov 24, 2009 By John Letzing

Google Inc. and other Internet companies have zeroed in on a resilient effort by a Republican lawmaker to pass legislation that could restrict their ability to take a nuanced approach to operating in "repressive" foreign countries, according to third-quarter lobbying reports.

Google, Yahoo Inc. and a trade group that also includes Microsoft Corp. have focused lobbying efforts on the bill, dubbed the "Global Online Freedom Act of 2009."

Introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the legislation could upset the delicate balancing act required of companies trying to do business in countries such as China -- where surging economies and expanding Internet access may be paired with censorship and political repression.

Google has struggled to compete in China, where it lags behind local firm Baidu in terms of Internet share.

The legislation proposes an "Office of Global Internet Freedom," which would monitor any moves by U.S. companies to filter or limit their in foreign countries.

In addition, if a company receives a user-information request from a foreign government for "other than legitimate law enforcement purposes," the U.S. attorney general could order the company not to comply -- potentially setting it up for an impasse with local authorities.

Google has modified its search service for Chinese users at the government's request before. In 2006, for example, it began limiting search results there for those exploring topics such as the pro-democracy, Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.

In addition, the company has been targeted by other foreign governments unhappy with the content it makes available online. Google has argued that it's better to provide censored Internet search results in foreign markets than no results at all.

A previous effort by Smith to pass similar legislation in 2006 met with resistance, and he subsequently penned a column in the National Review blaming Google's efforts in tandem with a firm run by powerful Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist Anthony Podesta.

According to public records, in the third quarter of this year Google employed Podesta's firm, Podesta Group Inc., to lobby House and Senate members on the legislation, which was re-introduced in May.

Podesta is widely recognized as a top D.C. powerbroker. His brother, John, was a chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Podesta did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition, Google directly lobbied Congress, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Commerce Department and the White House on the bill -- often referred to as "GOFA" -- according to third-quarter reports.

Google director of corporate and policy communications Bob Boorstin said in a statement that the GOFA legislation could be "improved to avoid impeding the spread of technologies around the world that promote free expression."

Boorstin added that the issues of censorship and free expression might best be addressed as part of "international human rights accords and trade mechanisms."

Yahoo became ensnared in a human rights debacle after it was sued in 2007 for handing personal information about pro-democracy users in China to local authorities, which helped lead to their imprisonment and torture.

Yahoo directly lobbied the State Department and Congress about the GOFA legislation in the third quarter, while also hiring Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc. to take up the issue, records show.

Yahoo has pulled out of direct competition in China, though it retains an ownership stake in Hangzhou-based Alibaba Group. However, the GOFA legislation could apply to other countries where Yahoo does business.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said in a statement that, "While the goals set forth by the sponsors of GOFA are noble, the bill's scope could ultimately mean that companies will have to cease providing information services in a number of countries."

"Yahoo will continue working with Congress as it addresses this legislation," the statement read.

In the wake of intense scrutiny in the media and on Capitol Hill of their operations in markets such as China, , Google, Microsoft and other companies formed the Global Network Initiative last year. The group is dedicated to protecting "freedom of expression" in information technology, according to its Web site.

Still, Rep. Smith is pressing ahead. His bill has been referred to two House committees, and is being co-sponsored by Democrats Brad Sherman, D-Calif., and David Wu, D-Ore., as well as two other Republicans.

Smith said in a statement that GOFA "is aimed at ending the collaboration between U.S. companies and brutally repressive regimes when there is concern that U.S. products will be used to put innocent, pro-democracy advocates in jail."

During his recent visit to China, President Barack Obama voiced support for open access to information, but stopped short of criticizing Beijing for censoring the Internet.

Microsoft, like Google, competes directly in the Chinese Internet market. The company began making its revamped search engine, Bing, available there last summer.

In 2006, Microsoft was criticized for deleting a politically-sensitive blog written by a China-based journalist. A spokesman deferred comment to the trade association TechAmerica -- which also includes , and has lobbied on the GOFA legislation.

"We're opposed to the bill, but not its underlying principles," said Josh Lamel, TechAmerica's senior vice president, commercial policy and government affairs.
___

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