The name Shi Tao might not ring a bell anymore today, but simply mention the vague phrase “the Yahoo-China incident” and ears will perk up in recognition. The 2004 debacle over Internet giant Yahoo disclosing personal information about Tao, a dissident blogger in China, which resulted in his arrest and 10-year prison sentence by Chinese authorities, has all but been forgotten. Following the incident, Yahoo was hit with a barrage of criticism from human rights groups for failing to protect privacy and freedom of speech for its users, and even Yahoo! CEO Jerry Yang (who announced his resignation earlier today) apologized in tears to Tao’s family.

Nevertheless, the Yahoo-China event sparked an outrage that only continued to swell with the compromising actions of other technology companies, such as Google’s decision to provide a special, filtered search service for China users (skewing results for such queries as “Tiananmen Square” and “Falun Gong”) or Skype’s decision to censor text messages. China has been the main focal point for the international debate because of its unique position as a country filled with lucrative investment opportunities but laden with harsh, repressive controls on speech and press. Nevertheless, its controversial interactions with global Internet giants provide crucial implications for the rest of the world.

Four years after the controversial Yahoo-China incident, amidst a slew of scholarly debates, corporate guilt, and human rights protests, a potential remedy is on the brink of fruition. The Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), sponsored by U.S. Representative Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), seeks to hold technology companies liable for infringing on freedom of speech and user privacy in their countries of operation. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs in October 2007, and it is currently awaiting a floor vote. GOFA is accompanied by the Global Network Initiative, a set of guidelines adopted by Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and a host of other companies, NGOs and non-profits in an effort to promote wise decisionmaking and accountability when dealing with speech repression and privacy infringement around the world. (Reporters Without Borders, however, has opted not to endorse the Principles encompassed in the GNI, criticizing its vague language and weakness in providing meaningful protection for speech rights.)

Whether or not GOFA will curttail the problem of Internet complicity with speech restriction, or if it will make any impacts on online free speech, obviously lies in the details of the Act itself. While GOFA has been roundly supported by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and human rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, it has been criticized by others for its vague language. GOFA stipulates that Internet companies may not disclose personal information or infringe on speech rights for any “Internet Restricting Country” — any country that “systematically and substantially restrict internet freedom.” This still leaves room for censorship in countries that do not fall under this category. (In 2003, Yahoo! was ordered by a French court to restrict French users from accessing an eBay site selling Nazi memorabilia — can France be listed as an “Internet Restricting Country”? Probably not — censorship approved.) It also states that these companies are allowed to disclose information for “legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes” — another vague phrase that can be widely interpreted. GOFA does have some very promising initiatives, however; one of the highlights of the Act is its setup of an independent agency to actively monitor search filtering policies and develop global strategies to combat state-sponsored information blockages.

The EU has initiated its own Global Online Freedom Act, modeled after the American draft, to provide the same obligations for European Internet technology companies.

Whether or not GOFA or the Global Network Initiative will deliver on their promises of protecting Internet speech and anonymity, they are crucial and laudable steps to promoting a freer cyberspace for debate and dissent.

Read more about the GNI and GOFA:

The Global Online Freedom Act
The Global Network Initiative
Altruistic Or Not, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo Pledge Human Rights Efforts
Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft’s Privacy Plan

Written by Brianna Lee