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Return of the Global Online Freedom Act (and Some Strange Politics With It)

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, May 8 2009

The Global Online Freedom Act (H.R.2271) goes back into the House bill hopper, and with it some topsy-turvy politics. Called "GOFA" for short, the bill would restrict U.S.-based tech companies from being complicit in restricting limiting Internet freedoms in countries abroad. The legislation's first iteration was sparked by the ire felt by members of Congress like Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) -- GOFA's main patron -- over the overseas practices of American firms like Google, Cisco, Microsoft, and Yahoo. GOFA would prevent those and other tech companies from handing over to foreign governments the names and other profiling information of people who use their services, unless the U.S. Department of Justice validates that the request is in the service of a legitimate law enforcement. Talking smack about Beijing -- one of the offenses that has gotten "cyberdissidents" in hot water in China -- would presumably not constitute just cause.

Smith has long been something of an odd duck amongst Republicans. He was one of the few on the right to, for example, to go against the Reagan Administration in pushing to sanction the apartheid government in South Africa. China's Internet abuses in particular seem to personally offend him, as witnessed in a 2006 House hearing where he positively grilled reps from Yahoo and other companies. (In a 2007 follow up hearing, Yahoo's Jerry Yang and other execs were called on "beg the forgiveness" of the mother of one imprisoned Chinese activist whose name they had turned over to authorities. Yang nodded in her direction.) But on global Internet freedom in general and in targeting China for abuses in particular, Smith's not alone in his party: GOFA's original co-sponsors are Republicans Dan Burton, Dana Rohrabacher, Frank Wolf, Thad McCotter, and lone Democrat Brad Sherman. On the other hand, Democrats -- so eager to embrace net neutrality in the U.S. context -- have shied away from GOFA as the wrong approach for addressing abuses. Not for nothing has Google's footprint in DC only grown in the last few years. CEO Eric Schmidt even sits on the presidential roundtable on technology. A second flip-flop of the everyday: this is one context where Smith and his Republican allies believe in an activist government. Writing for the National Review, Smith argued that global Internet freedoms are "responsibilities Congress can never delegate to the private sector."

While the earlier version of GOFA that sprung out of the 2006 hearings passed through several committees, the Democratic leadership never brought to the floor of the House for a full vote -- a shutting out that Smith has blamed on Tony Podesta's lobbying shop and other lobbying efforts. A Smith spokesperson says that GOFA's prospects this congress depend on whether the Democratic leadership is willing to give it a hearing on the House floor.