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February 15, 2012

Global Internet Freedom Act May Soon Make It out of a Congressional Committee

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

A proposal that restricts the use of technology against religious and human rights activists in oppressive governments may soon be presented before the U.S. Congress. The Global Internet Freedom Act (H.R. 3605) should be released “soon” from a Congressional committee, according to its sponsors.



The bill – if enacted – would improve transparency on Internet companies based in the United States. It would limit exports of U.S. technology to countries with repressive governments. Publicly-traded Internet companies would also have to report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission how they perform “due diligence” on human rights, especially on any collecting and/or sharing of personally identifiable information with governments in repressive nations. The companies would also have to tell the SEC (News - Alert) what steps they take to let users know when online content is removed or blocked. The bill not only applies to U.S. companies but foreign IT companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges, including Internet companies from China.

“It is an idea whose time has come,” U.S. Rep Chris Smith, R-NJ, said during a Congressional hearing on Tuesday about the related topic of oppression of human rights and religious activists in China. “The enabling of high tech to enable dictatorships to find, apprehend and incarcerate people of faith … and to destroy dissident movements throughout the world calls out for this legislation."

“U.S. companies should not, knowingly or unwittingly, be providing the technology used by repressive regimes to hunt down and punish human rights activists,” Smith adds.

“That would provide a tremendous and efficient tool to break down this firewall in China, and certainly will enhance and improve the chance for rapid democratization in China,” Bob Fu, the founder and president of the China Aid Association, testified before Congress this week about the proposal.

The latest version of the bill was introduced in December when hearings were also held, according to TMCnet. It comes as reports have surfaced of U.S. technology being used to censor political and religious speech, and monitor activists through the Internet or mobile devices.

“In the past five or six years the Internet has been transformed from a freedom plaza to dictator’s best friend,” Smith added in a recent statement. “Every day we learn of more democratic activists being arrested through the use of a growing array of Internet censorship and surveillance tools, abused by the governments of China, Belarus, Egypt, Syria and many other countries around the world. The stakes are life and death for online activists and they deserve our support and protection.”

The bill has been co-sponsored by Smith, Thaddeus McCotter, R- Mich., and Frank Wolf, R-Va.

Similar proposals were introduced in Congress in 2006, 2007 and 2009 – but those bills never got past Congressional committees, according to WebProNews. Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, said the proposal should be made in European governments, too, according to a report on RawStory.com.

Meanwhile, Smith’s proposal was criticized by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. “It seems as if some members of the American establishment are taking a confrontational mentality ... The US is again trying to take the role of the supreme regulator and ‘the ruler of destinies,’” Aleksandr Lukashevich, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said on the agency’s website, according to a report appearing on RT.com.


Ed Silverstein is a TMCnet contributor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves
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