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House Subcommittee Approves Global Online Freedom Act

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, March 27 2012

Image: WIRED/Wikimedia Commons

A House subcommittee on human rights voted on Tuesday to approve a bill that seeks to promote the notion of global "Internet freedom" by blocking the export of U.S. technologies that overseas regimes would use primarily to suppress political organization and dissent.

Rep. Chris Smith, (R-N.J.), the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, has been working on his bill H.R. 3605 for several years. The bill initially came about as a response to the disclosure that Yahoo! gave Chinese authorities the account information and name of Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning.

Since then, the issue of U.S. technologies enabling censorship and crackdowns on dissent has only gained in profile. Last Fall, Sunnyvale-based BlueCoat Systems acknowledged that its devices were being used by the Syrian government, unbeknownst to them, to filter citizens' access to the web. As an indicator of how a once-obscure issue has made it into the public consciousness and into pop culture, a riff on that story recently made it into the popular CBS television series The Good Wife. More recently, Pakistan issued a controversial request for proposals from tech companies to build its $10 million firewall. And an OpenNet Initiative study published last March found that nine Middle Eastern and North African countries use Western-built technologies to block access to online content.

Among other things, Smith's bill would ban exports of U.S. products that the State Department would deem to be primarily aimed at blocking content or for spying on citizens. The State Department would also be given a host of additional responsibilities, such as publishing annual reports on "freedom of electronic information in each country," assessing censorship efforts of countries around the world, and identifying "internet-restricting countries" to congressional committees and the public. Companies, for their parts, would have to disclose in their annual reports what "human rights due diligence" they've performed before they enter markets with repressive governments focused on censoring the Net.

It's not clear what traction the legislation will have in Congress this time around, but there's already a lot of activity at the State Department and within the private sector around the issue of Internet freedom.

Most recently, several companies responded to the Pakistani advocacy group Bolo Bhi's call not to sell their wares to the government in Pakistan. Five of the eight groups that Bolo Bhi called on not to sell their products committed not to.

For its part, the State Department has had access to several million dollars over the past several years to fund projects that would enable activists in foreign countries to evade censorship, identification and surveillance.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the arrest of the Chinese dissident and the subsequent uproar in Congress, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google joined an initiative called the Global Nework Initiative, which includes human rights groups, socially-responsible investors and academics. The initiative provides a forum for the companies to think through how they can be responsible Netizens. Its successes in helping the companies through this treacherous terrain have been documented in Rebecca MacKinnion's new book on Internet freedom Consent of the Networked.

As MacKinnon points out in her book, the initiative's successes are encouraging, but many other companies such as Twitter and Facebook have yet to join.