Last month Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) reintroduced legislation from the previous Congress, this time as the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007, or GOFA (HT: Slashdot). According to the commentary on Slashdot, “GOFA would create a U.S.-government-designated list of ‘Internet restricting countries’ and would in most cases prohibit U.S.-based companies from censoring content or turning over users’ information to the governments of those countries.”

This law directly affects the situation of companies like Yahoo!, Google, and MSN who have been pretty roundly criticized for their practices in markets like China. Awhile back I discussed the complexity of these kinds of situations, attempting to recast the discussion within the context of this question: “What is the best way to move China toward economic, political, and religious freedom?”

Rep. Smith has repeated the oft-heard criticisms: “By helping dictators stifle free speech and spy on dissidents, American IT companies are putting profits before principles.” The Slashdot commentary notes that the major impact of the legislation is not likely to come in the area of censorship of Internet sites, but rather “where the law could make a difference is in the prohibition against turning over users’ personal data to law enforcement in censoring countries.” The piece also outlines why U.S. Internet companies might actually endorse such regulation, since it would give them bargaining power in negotiations with oppressive regimes.

Meanwhile, Google exec Sergey Brin has admitted that their policy of censoring web searches in accord with the demands of the Chinese government was ‘a net negative’ for their business, given the critical reaction from Western consumers and damage to the company’s reputation (HT: Slashdot).

Of course, given Google’s massive profit in 2006, including a fourth quarter near-tripling, the company can probably handle some short term negatives. And there’s speculation that Google’s growth may be a little too “hot” and so perhaps the fallout from Google’s practices in China, a net negative as it may be in itself, has done the company some good. After all, Google has now got a toehold in a hugely developing market.

Still, foreign companies have not been hugely successful so far in competition with domestic Internet companies in China, “partly because of regulatory restrictions that favor homegrown companies, but also because foreign companies often do not understand China’s Internet market, which is geared primarily to entertainment and mobile phones.”

What is clear is that the rise of economic freedom in China presents a multi-faceted challenge to the West to show how economic, religious, and political freedom are interwoven. Calvin College has received a $2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to educate Chinese scholars about “how philosophy, science, morality, economics and religious belief have interacted in the West.”

Other efforts are trying to include concerns about religious freedom within the broader context of human rights. The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom is advocating that the U.S. government use the economic leverage represented by the Olympic Games, which come to China in 2008, to “pressure Beijing into reforming” its human rights practices (HT: ENI).

Joseph Loconte, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes in an extended essay in the current issue of Christianity Today, that “evangelicals could lobby for the creation of a U.S. Commission on Human Rights, in the same way they rallied in the 1990s for a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.”

Perhaps adoption of the GOFA would be one small step in showing China just how the West views the relationship between freedom in various spheres of human activity.