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Senate Leader Seeks Answers on Net Freedom

In the wake of Google's revelations about a cyber attack targeting Chinese human rights activists, a top Senate Democrat is renewing his investigation into the practices of U.S. tech companies operating in China.

Dick Durbin (Ill.), the assistant Senate majority leader, has sent letters of inquiry to 30 leading Internet and IT firms, including Facebook, Twitter and Apple (NASDAQ: APPL), asking for details about their human-rights policies in China and the steps they take to guard against rights abuses by the Chinese government.

"I commend Google for coming to the conclusion that cooperating with the 'Great Firewall' of China is inconsistent with their human rights responsibilities," Durbin said in a statement. "Google sets a strong example in standing up to the Chinese government's continued failure to respect the fundamental human rights of free expression and privacy."

Durbin, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, announced plans to hold a hearing on Internet freedom next month, calling on executives from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and other tech companies to testify.

This week's activity revisits the issue of Internet freedom for Durbin, who last August sent a letter to 26 companies urging them to join the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct established to set parameters for Internet and tech companies operating in countries with repressive communications policies.

Google, Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) have each signed onto the Global Network Initiative.

Durbin chaired a hearing on Internet freedom in May 2008, hearing from executives with Google, Yahoo and Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), as well as representatives of human-rights organizations.

Durbin sent out letters of inquiry this week to most of the companies he queried last year, but broadened his probe to include Amazon, IAC, IBM, Oracle, RIM and SAP.

Following the coordinated attacks on Google and at least 20 other tech companies, the search giant last month threatened to shutter its operations in China if the government refused to relax its censorship policies.

That bombshell announcement reignited long-simmering concerns about the complicity of U.S. companies with repressive Chinese policies, and occasioned a speech from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the subject of Internet freedom in which she spoke against repressive Internet policies and called on the Chinese government to investigate the Google attack.

The Chinese government responded swiftly and vocally, using state-run media outlets to criticize U.S. duplicity on the subject of Internet regulation, asserting Chinese sovereignty to set and enforce its own laws.

Chinese officials have also disputed that the attacks emanated from the country, and flatly denied any government involvement.

The full list of the 30 companies receiving letters from Durbin this week follows: Acer, Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Cisco, Dell, eBay, Facebook, Fortinet, HP, IAC, IBM, Juniper, Lenovo, McAfee, Motorola, News Corp, Nokia, Nokia Siemens, Oracle, RIM, Siemens, SAP, Skype, Sprint Nextel, Toshiba, Twitter, Verizon, Vodafone and Websense.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.