Jan 13, 2010
Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04) today called on leading internet firm Google to sever its dealings with the Chinese government that enable it to spy on its own people, and called on House leaders to finally vote on the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), a bipartisan bill that passed multiple House Committees in the previous Congress but was not brought up for a floor vote.
In a letter today to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and House Foreign Affairs Committee Howard Berman, Smith called for action on his legislation to prevent U.S. information technology (IT) companies from working with repressive foreign governments that seek to conduct Internet surveillance on their own citizens in order to find, capture, convict and often torture them for engaging in democracy promotion and human rights advocacy on the Internet. Smith held the first congressional hearing on the issue in February 2006, at which Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco testified. (Transcript of hearings.)
“Information technology can and should be used to open up commercial opportunities and provide people with access to vast amounts of honest information. It should be a means of personal freedom, exploration of knowledge and communication, not a weapon to oppress people,” said Smith, a longtime human rights advocate in Congress. “Dictatorships need two pillars to survive—propaganda and secret police; the Internet—when misused by authorities—supports them both. These days, many turn a blind eye to human rights abuses with a ‘business is business’ attitude. But responsible global companies do not knowingly work hand-in-glove in tracking down journalists, educators, religious leaders and political opponents for oppressive regimes.
“We need to work to protect advocates of human rights and democracy who face real threats from their own governments,” Smith said. “U.S. companies should have no role in political censorship.”
Smith said his legislation will provide the appropriate guidelines for U.S. businesses so as to steer clear from collaboration with the surveillance efforts of oppressive regimes.
Smith’s GOFA bill was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Judiciary Committee and Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008, but was never brought to the House floor. Smith re-introduced a new GOFA bill, HR 2271, in 2009. The bill is supported by numerous human rights groups and non-government organizations
The provisions of the Smith GOFA bill include:
- disclosure of the data U.S. IT companies doing business in repressive countries block when complying with the policies of those countries, as well as how they filter search engine results;
- protections for personal identifying information, such as email accounts;
- recordkeeping by U.S. IT companies on demands for personal information about Internet users by their government, and notification of same to the U.S. Attorney General;
- prevention of U.S. IT companies from blocking U.S.-government web sites;
- establishment of an Office of Global Internet Freedom within the State Department to promote freedom of expression on the Internet;
- requirement to submit an annual report and designate governments that substantially restrict Internet freedom; and,
- executive-branch waiver provisions, granting flexibility to the proposed law.
The bill is aimed at ending the collaboration between U.S. companies and brutally repressive regimes when there is concern that the U.S. products will be used to put the opponents of foreign countries in jail. The legislation also gives the Attorney General the authority to order the IT companies not to comply if there is a reasonable likelihood that the demand is not made for legitimate law enforcement purposes, such as tracking down political or religious dissidents.
“My bill passed the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Judiciary Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee in 2008, but was never brought to the House floor,” Smith said. “This time, House leadership should bring the bill to the floor for a vote. Internet freedom all around the world is at stake. U.S. IT companies should be in the business of offering open paths of communication, not new technologies to track down citizens who use the Internet to speak out about their government.”
Sponsors include Reps. David Wu (OR-01), Frank Wolf (VA-10), Brad Sherman (CA-27), Dana Rohrabacher (CA.-46), Dan Burton (IN-05), and Thaddeus McCotter (MI-11).
Smith noted that American companies not only provide personally identifying information on human rights activists to secret police, but also censor what is made available on the Internet especially when it pertains to human rights and democracy activities.
Modeled after the groundbreaking Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, GOFA asserts a government responsibility to protect free speech and restore public confidence in U.S. business—responsibilities Congress can never delegate to the private sector. The 2006 hearing revealed the extent to which leading U.S. IT companies directly and knowingly enable some of the world’s most repressive states to censor the Internet and round up dissidents, now known as “cyber-dissidents.” That same year GOFA legislation was introduced, and, in response, a small group of IT companies formed the Global Network Initiative (GNI), attempting to forestall legislation by creating their own standards on how IT companies should respond to repressive governments. Smith said GNI was a “step in the right direction,” but does not stop U.S. IT companies from blocking web sites, controlling search engine results, or answering secret police subpoenas for information identifying dissidents so they can be tracked down and even imprisoned.