WASHINGTON—The wave of Internet censorship appearing in repressive regimes around the world and legislation introduced yesterday—the Global Online Freedom Act of 2011 (GOFA)—were the focus of a hearing held by the Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who is also chairman of the House panel that oversees international human rights.
At the hearing of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Chairman Smith described the deteriorating state of freedom of political and religious speech online and the growing danger for dissidents who use the Internet – a major human rights concern in some OSCE participating states.
“In the past five or six years the Internet has been transformed from a freedom plaza to dictator’s best friend,” said Smith. “Every day we learn of more democratic activists being arrested through the use of a growing array of Internet censorship and surveillance tools, abused by the governments of China, Belarus, Egypt, Syria and many other countries around the world. The stakes are life and death for online activists and they deserve our support and protection. I look forward to moving this bill forward during this session of Congress.” Click here to read Chairman Smith’s opening statement.
Click here to watch a video of Chairman's remarks.
The provisions of the new legislation, H.R. 3605, are designed to help democratic activists and human rights defenders by creating a new transparency standard for U.S. Internet companies. The bill also restricts the flow of U.S. technology to repressive regimes. Click here for the text of H.R. 3605.
H.R. 3605 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.
“With this bill we focus on creating transparency, so that ‘Netizens’ can hold companies accountable,” said Smith, whose first GOFA bill made it through three committees in 2008. “This will apply not only to U.S. companies but to the increasing number of foreign IT companies that raise capital here on our stock exchanges, including a large number of Chinese Internet companies that will soon have to report their practices to the SEC.”
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.
“It’s unconscionable that U.S. technology is putting democracy activists at risk,” Smith said. “U.S. companies should not, knowingly or unwittingly, be providing the technology used by repressive regimes to hunt down and punish human rights activists. My bill provides the very clear guidance companies say they need to help them make the right business decisions when it comes to preventing human rights abuses. This bill will stop the vicious merry-go-round we are now on of exporting Internet-restricting technologies from the U.S. that we then have to spend millions of dollars helping activists circumvent.”
Chairman 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.
Witnesses testifying at the hearing were (click on name to read testimony):
Clothilde Le Coz, Washington Director, Reporters Without Borders;
Daniel Calingaert, Ph.D., Vice President, Freedom House;
Elisa Massimino, President and CEO, Human Rights First, and;
Rebecca MacKinnon, Fellow, New America Foundation.
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.