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While the Republican-majority U.S. Congress has favored less regulation of big business, one GOP lawmaker, Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, has shown a willingness to regulate technology and Internet businesses in their dealings with China. Smith held prominent hearings on Capitol Hill on Feb. 15, compelling representatives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco to answer criticism of their collaboration with the Chinese government in censoring the Internet and turning over data on cyberdissidents.

Plus, Smith went a step further beyond the rhetoric, introducing a bill — co-authored by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Ca.) — called the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 (PDF file), which would put limits on how American companies do business with China.

While many businesses working within China are worried that the bill will hurt their bottom lines, one human rights group based in France is ready to help support the bill’s passage. Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters Sans Frontieres or RSF) has been following freedom of press issues for 18 years, and the group has long been critical of Yahoo, Google, MSN, Cisco and other Western companies who have collaborated with the Chinese government in surveillance and censorship.

The group first unearthed details that Yahoo Hong Kong had turned over data to China’s state security authorities to help convict journalist Shi Tao to 10 years in prison last April. And just yesterday, RSF found that both Yahoo and Chinese competitor Sina turned over information on cyberdissident Li Zhi’s email account. Zhi is a former official who was sentenced to eight years in prison for “inciting subversion” via the Internet.

Julien Pain (pictured above), who leads the Internet desk for RSF, told me the group will cajole U.S. representatives to support the bill and get it passed. So far, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco have not commented on what they think about the proposed legislation. In the coming days, I will do my best to get them to talk in-depth on the record about this bill and the issue of collaborating with the Chinese government.

I spoke at length today with Pain, and the following is an edited transcript of our phone conversation.

What do you think about the Congressional hearings on the Internet companies doing business with China?

Julien Pain: We’re very happy that the hearings took place. The approach that was taken by Rep. Christopher Smith was not the approach that we had advised. We had asked for a two-step approach, with the first step being self-regulation, and if the first step failed, if the companies didn’t agree on a code of conduct, then we thought it might be useful to have legislation. This went faster than what we expected because they went straight to legislation.

The hearing was great because these companies had to answer — they couldn’t avoid the debate any longer. It was compulsary that they attend the committee meeting, which was great because they had to answer to U.S. congressmen, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and the media.

Then after the meeting we had to take a stand and decide whether to support the legislation, which means we would have to give up our two-step approach. We hadn’t made our position public, but we will support the legislation in its entirety. It was difficult for us, but this legislation is based on the recommendations we had made very clearly. It’s almost impossible for us not to support it. It’s clearly going in the right direction. It’s a great step forward, and it’s very unlikely that these companies would have come up with a code of conduct on their own.

Up until the hearings, it was nearly impossible to get Google, Yahoo, Microsoft or Cisco to comment about their collaboration with the Chinese government. Has that changed now for you or other NGOs?

Pain: I know they’ve had meetings with other NGOs, and they wouldn’t have done that a few years ago, because they didn’t have to. Now they realize they have to do it because there’s too much pressure on them. But I’m talking about the other NGOs because we’re still the ‘bad guys’ to them, because they believe we’re being too harsh on them. I take it as a compliment, because we made this story hot for the media. We even revealed the collaboration of Yahoo with the Chinese police and gave evidence of the collaboration, and that’s why Yahoo is so upset with us.

Why did you as an NGO have to do the investigative work on the Yahoo collaboration? Isn’t that something the media should have uncovered?

Pain: [laughs] Well, you know how the media works… Of course if you have an investigative journalist who did this work and got results then we would be out of a job. But they don’t do it. They wait for us to get the story and evidence, that’s the way it goes. Sometimes the journalists do that job, but in the human rights area, it’s not very common. That’s our job, there’s nothing bad about it. Our job is to make this issue public and work with the media on it.

Some people say these companies are just doing business in China, and it’s not their job to change censorship in China or bring political change.

Pain: I agree that it’s not their job to fight the Chinese regime. It’s our job and the job of diplomats and not the job of private business. But they have to respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it’s not only for diplomats and NGOs — everyday citizens as well as foreign companies should respect human rights including freedom of expression. It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t want to fight against the Chinese,’ but it’s another thing to agree to collaborate with the Chinese police, to censor themselves and their search engine.

If Google has a search engine in China, and it’s censored by the Chinese police, that’s fine. I’m not asking Google to pull out of China completely, and make statements about how the Chinese regime censors the Net — that’s our job. But that’s not what they’re doing. They’re collaborating, they’re censoring themselves. Being a police informant is very different.

Another argument is that the U.S. Congress coming out and criticizing China on censorship is hypocritical because the U.S. government allows so many other business dealings with China that don’t take into account human rights.

Pain: Well that’s an argument for U.S. diplomats to answer. Again, to sell cars and planes to China, that’s business. I’m not asking for a complete embargo on China, I don’t think that would be realistic or helpful for the future of China. But when we’re taking about Cisco selling surveillance equipment to the Chinese police, or when you’re talking about changing the flow of information, then you can’t do business with China like you’re doing business with other democracies.

It’s too easy to turn a blind eye to the nature of the Chinese regime, or the Tunisian regime or the Cuban regime. You can’t do business in the same way. When Yahoo says, ‘We didn’t know we were turning over information about dissidents,’ then they are saying they don’t know what China is. They’ve been working in China for five or six years, and they don’t know this is an authoritarian regime and they don’t understand the system?

If they didn’t know, it’s because they didn’t want to know. For instance, if they’re asked to provide information on Shi Tao [the journalist who was later jailed], it’s an unspecified request. [The Chinese authorities] don’t say, ‘This is an independent journalist asking for more democracy who sent some emails.’ They’re not that dumb. They ask about the owner of the email address. But when you’ve been doing this for three or four years, you can just type ‘Shi Tao’ into a search engine and find out about him.

Another argument is that Google and Yahoo are actually opening up China to the outside world by doing business there. So they might be collaborating with the government, but they are actually bringing new information to citizens there that we don’t know about.

Pain: That’s always the argument, but what information does Google or Yahoo bring that the local competitor Baidu doesn’t? Nothing. They are doing exactly the same censorship, with the exact same search results, the same websites, the same key words. I don’t see the benefit of having Google in China now, except for Google making money there and getting a share of the market there.

The other argument is that in the long run, the activities even of the local competitors will open up China more to the outside world. But that’s not what we’re monitoring on a day-to-day basis. This kind of vague speech about the future of the Internet, nobody knows what the future of the Internet will be. What we know is that when we monitor freedom of speech in China, the situation is worsening. It’s more difficult now to talk about politics and criticize the authorities online than it was five years ago.

What’s the best way to educate the American public about Chinese cyberdissidents?

Pain: We try to work on three levels. The first is to get the media involved and that’s how you reach people. We also work with investment firms, and anyone can be a Yahoo shareholder or Google shareholder. Individual shareholders can say, ‘I own a share of your company and what I think you’re doing in China is wrong.’

We’re also working with U.S. representatives. So anyone can write their congressman and say, ‘I condemn what Google and Yahoo are doing, and I support Chris Smith’s bill.’ Anyone can do that.

What’s your next step?

Pain: My job is to give information to the media about what’s happening. In the next two or three months, we’ll have a lot of work doing intensive lobbying getting this bill passed. This will not be an easy job. But if you had asked me a year ago, if I thought a law would be passed, I would not have thought it was possible. Now I’m much more optimistic. It’s going to be a big fight, but I think we can win it.

Was there a specific turning point where things changed over the past year?

Pain: It was the Yahoo case. Freedom of expression is a vague concept. Child labor is more obvious, everyone can imagine a 6-year-old working in a factory. So what we needed was an example that showed people how important freedom of expression is. Thanks to the Yahoo case, nobody could criticize us, it was so clear. Because of this case, we had people talking about Internet censorship and now people are aware of it, and it’s just the beginning.

I’m sure most people agree that what Yahoo did was wrong, but most people think we’re being too harsh on Google, which is just censoring its results. It’s just a concept, self-censorship. It’s hard to explain that it has dire consequences.

When people get only one side of [the story], the Chinese government can manipulate people. They did this in the past when there was a huge debate about history books in Japan. The Chinese controlled the Internet, and managed to create anger with Internet users and within the population, and it ended up with riots and protests against the Japanese embassy and Japanese people were attacked. [Censorship] has more concrete results but it’s more difficult to explain to people.