Federal Commission Asks Congress to Investigate Chinese Web Activities

Published February 1, 2009

The federal government’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has recommended Congress review any agreements between American Internet service providers and the Chinese government that ask the U.S. companies to provide personally identifiable information about users.

The recommendation came late last year after numerous House and Senate hearings about the relationships between U.S. tech companies and restrictive national governments.

Sticky Situation

Tech experts say the relationships create a sticky situation for U.S. Internet service providers and information technology firms.

“Many people believe that access to information, even a censored Internet, helps spread democratic values, and that IT companies, by working with China, are ultimately providing a net benefit to millions of Chinese users,” said Daniel Castro, a senior analyst for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, DC.

However, “the Internet allows activism on an unprecedented scale, requiring IT companies to tread carefully in this area or risk offending their primary customers in Western countries,” Castro said. “Transparency and public opinion will serve as an effective check on many of these issues.”

Seeking More Transparency

As a means of encouraging U.S. companies to help increase transparency, a group of academics, technology leaders, human rights organizations, and communications and information company representatives and investors created the Global Network Initiative. The coalition seeks to help companies, nonprofits, and other organizations avoid relationships with foreign countries that ask them to engage in customer surveillance and censorship.

But although the U.S. government is against surveillance in most cases, it still wants the Chinese government to monitor Web activity to protect intellectual property, particularly in the movie industry, one expert notes.

“I believe one of the problems we face is while we are telling the Chinese to avoid monitoring, we are also telling them to monitor content in order to keep an eye on copyright infringement, but not political discussions that don’t make them happy,” said Bruce Abramson, an intellectual property expert and president of the San Francisco-based consultancy firm Informationism, Inc. “If we want them to have the technology to monitor content, it’s hard to tell them how to use it.”

Other Suggestions

Along with the recommendation to examine agreements, the 12-member commission also suggested Congress explore whether the Chinese government’s press and Internet censorship violates the nation’s membership obligations to the World Trade Organization.

“The Chinese government, acting on behalf of Chinese companies, can use censorship as an economic tool to give preference to Chinese IT companies,” said Castro. “For example, many suspect that the Chinese search engine company Baidu was behind the government’s decision to block Google in 2002.”

In the meantime, the Global Network Initiative is urging U.S. companies to reject agreements calling for unnecessary surveillance and censorship. The coalition will ask participating organizations to agree to assess human rights risks, allow for greater transparency with users, and challenge human rights violations across the globe when dealing with nations that impose such surveillance and censorship of private Internet users.

Aricka Flowers ([email protected] ) writes from Chicago.