Congressman Plans to ‘Engage’ on Internet Freedom

Published March 4, 2010

The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said his panel will get “engaged” in the debate over global Internet freedom, though he stopped short of scheduling hearings to encourage American companies that do business in oppressive countries to put liberty before profit.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) said his committee “is considering the matter of Internet freedom” in the wake of clandestine attacks on Google’s server in China—which the American Internet giant is convinced came from the communist government. When it revealed the cyberattacks to the public in January, Mountain View, California-based Google said the communist regime was attempting to track Chinese dissidents and their allies overseas.

Google immediately threatened to leave the Chinese market, and Beijing threatened to kick the company out of the country. As of early March, however, Google was still doing business in China.

Growing Concern Beyond China
Berman said it was not just the Google/China conflict that spurred his committee to start investigating, at least behind the scenes, the question of global Internet freedom. He was also concerned about how the Iranian government, controlled by “revolutionary” mullahs, tried to crack down on Twitter communications during its last elections, he said.

And in preparation for the February 11 anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the government blocked access to Google, including Gmail, in what was widely seen as a move to hamper dissent. Berman said at a public forum in his district in January these events spurred action on his part.

“We have sought information from U.S. companies, many of which are based in this area in California, on the Global Network Initiative, which advocates that companies adopt corporate responsibility guidelines and collaborate with human rights NGOs [non-governmental organizations] to push back on Internet-repressive regimes’ demands,” Berman said.

“We sought this information at the end of last year and are currently evaluating their responses,” he said. “And we will continue to be engaged in this issue.”
Limited U.S. Govt. Reach
Dean Cheng, research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, said he empathizes with Congress’s desire to foster Internet freedom on a global scale. But members of Congress, as well as sympathizers of the cause in America, should temper their expectations, he said.

“Our government’s ability to dictate how companies behave overseas is very limited,” Cheng said. “We can restrict them with regard to things like corruption, so U.S. companies are prohibited from bribing, for example, executives in other countries.”

But to go beyond that—for instance, preventing Google from cooperating with censors in a foreign government—gets “into areas of Internet law that I’m not really sure anybody has settled,” he added.

“China could certainly try to get Google to do censorship, and that was one of conditions for Google going in to China in the first place,” Cheng said. “So if you went to, and typed in ‘Tiananmen Square,’ you saw Mrs. Richardson’s photographs of her tour group at the square—but you didn’t see the man standing in front of tanks back in 1989.”

Can Markets Foster Freedom?
Many argue that even if American Internet companies cooperate with the censorship policies of an oppressive regime, the very nature of online communication—which fosters freedom of expression across national borders—makes it eventually impossible for that regime to enforce censorship. In other words, by gaining customers, American firms will both make money and foster freedom.

Cheng, however, says that theory is only coming up on its first round of tests, and it may not hold up.

“Once upon a time [American firms] saw an enormous market in China, and companies were just going to make any sacrifice [on the principle of freedom] worthwhile as a business decision,” Cheng said. “Google and others believed that by entering the [Chinese] market at all, they were improving the chances of things opening up.”

No ‘Holy Grail’
“But I think what Google has found is that not only is China proving not to be the ‘Holy Grail’ of customers, but the price of working in China comes at a cost of being more vulnerable to Chinese cyberattacks,” he added.

“So I would suggest here is that what we are seeing is companies experimenting, failing, and concluding that this is all just not worth it,” Cheng said. “And I think that is part of the essence of the free market: the ability to make choices, make mistakes, and learn from them without being mandated from on high.”

Loren Heal ([email protected]) writes from Neoga, Illinois.