U.S. Web Freedom Bill Critical to Combating Censorship

Washington

Freedom House strongly supports the Global Online Freedom Act, a new bill to prevent U.S. technology companies from assisting repressive regimes in their efforts to identify, silence and punish democracy and human rights activists on the internet. The GOFA bill is critical to combating the growth of internet censorship and Congress should move it quickly through the committee stage and onto the floor of the House for a vote.

"Congress must send a strong signal that U.S. technology firms will not be complicit in the efforts of repressive regimes to spy on their citizens and then exploit that information to commit human rights abuses, including torture," said Jennifer Windsor, Freedom House executive director.

Representative Chris Smith, R-N.J., introduced the bill yesterday with the bipartisan backing of Reps. Brad Sherman, D-Calif. and Frank Wolf, R-Va., among others. It is an updated version of a previous bill that House leadership refused to bring to a vote last year.

The new bill would require U.S. technology companies to notify the U.S. Attorney General when repressive regimes demand personal information about internet users. It also gives the Attorney General the authority to order companies not to comply if there is a reasonable likelihood that the information will be used to repress dissidents.

GOFA would prevent American companies from blocking U.S. government websites as well as require them to disclose the data they censor at the request of repressive regimes and reveal how they filter search engine results. A new Office of Global Internet Freedom within the State Department would annually identify governments that substantially restrict internet freedom.

Freedom on the Net, a new publication from Freedom House, warns that the rights of internet users are increasingly at risk as governments expand their ability to monitor and control online activity. The pilot study covers 15 countries, raising concern over trends such as the "outsourcing of censorship" to private companies.

Although the U.S. technology industry is developing voluntary standards for conduct, Freedom House believes a federal law is necessary to shield companies from the pressures they face from repressive regimes. U.S. companies would be able to point to the penalties contained in GOFA as a reason to resist demands for collaboration with internet censors and other violators of human rights.

"In repressive environments, the internet represents a new frontier where citizens can often express themselves more freely than they can in traditional media," said Windsor. "The Global Online Freedom Act is essential to keep authoritarian governments from closing this space."

Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties worldwide since 1972.


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