WASHINGTON, D.C. – Promoting online freedom in repressive countries is at the core of the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) passed yesterday by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights. The Subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who is also Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission).
At the March 27, 2012, markup, Chairman Smith described the deteriorating state of freedom of political and religious speech online and the growing danger for dissidents who use the Internet.
“The threat to human rights is very serious,” said Smith. “Reporters Without Borders just released its ‘Internet Enemies’ list that names the countries that violate their citizen’s online freedoms. Their report tells us that China, Vietnam and Iran are the world’s biggest prisons for netizens. But other countries are not lagging far behind. Sadly, it’s through the assistance of Western companies and technology – and this includes American companies and technology – that governments like those of Iran, China, Syria, and many other countries are transforming the Internet into a ‘weapon of mass surveillance.’” (Click here to read Chairman Smith’s opening statement.)
By unanimous consent the subcommittee agreed to amend Smith’s original bill and replace it with new revised text that is expected to win full committee support. The provisions added by Smith through an amendment in the nature of a substitute (Click here for the amended text of H.R. 3605) are designed to significantly help democratic activists and human rights defenders by creating a new transparency standard for Internet companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges and operating in countries that substantially censor or control the Internet.
As amended, H.R. 3605 now requires Internet companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) how they conduct their human rights due diligence, including with regard to the collection and sharing of personally identifiable information with repressive countries, in addition to the steps they take to notify users when they remove content or block access to content.
In response to numerous reports of U.S. technology being used to filter political and religious speech, as well as track down or conduct surveillance of activists through the Internet or mobile devices, the bill prohibits the export of hardware or software that can be used for surveillance, tracking, blocking, etc. to governments in an Internet-restricting country.
The Global Online Freedom Act has been supported by Yahoo!, Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Access, (Click here to read Yahoo!’s letter of support; click here to read letters of support from human rights NGOs.) On July 15, 2011, Chairman Smith held a hearing, “The Promises We Keep Online: Internet Freedom in the OSCE Region,” at the Helsinki Commission. (Click here to read a transcript of the Helsinki Commission hearing.)
Rep. Smith, a senior member of Congress, is also the Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. He is a leading voice on human rights issues and the author of a number of landmark human rights bills, including the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, is an independent agency of the Federal Government charged with monitoring compliance with the Helsinki Accords and advancing comprehensive security through promotion of human rights, democracy, and economic, environmental and military cooperation in 56 countries. The Commission consists of nine members from the U.S. Senate, nine from the House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.