During the last week of March, a US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs panel approved legislation seeking to bar US companies from assisting foreign countries with their efforts to censor the Internet or monitor their citizens’ Internet or mobile communications.
Specifically, the legislation known as the The Global Online Freedom Act and sponsored by Congressman Chris Smith, R-NJ, would do the following:
- Bar US firms from exporting hardware or software to countries that intend to use it to spy on or censor their citizens.
- Require the US State Department to identify in its annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices which countries are restricting access to the Internet.
- Require companies listed on US stock exchanges to disclose to the SEC what kind of information they are sharing with repressive regimes and whether or not they notify users when they block access to content as requested by such regimes.
In addition, the latest version of the bill includes some changes sought to address industry concerns, mainly a safe harbor provision for companies who join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder group aiming to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector, from having to report such information to the SEC.
The revised version of the bill has attracted the support of Yahoo! which was criticized several years ago when it provided information about a dissident journalist to the Chinese government. The journalist was subsequently imprisoned because of that information.
Ironically and despite efforts by Congress to censor the Internet at home with SOPA that was stopped by popular uproar, the Global Online Freedom Act is expected to face an uphill battle to become law as previous versions of the bill have failed to gain traction. Nevertheless, perhaps the revised bill addressing industry concerns will have a better shot at passing.