March 10, 2010
WASHINGTON, D.C.–During a joint press and teleconference yesterday at 11:30 AM EST, Congressmen David Wu and Chris Smith publicly announced their bipartisan efforts to support global internet freedom. Encouraged by Google’s recent stance against censoring its search engines, Wu and Smith have chosen to co-found the new Global Online Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, setting a stronger institutional backbone to combat the piracy of intellectual properties and ensure free communication worldwide.
Congressman Smith further reintroduced his proposed bill, Global Online Freedom Act 2009, which was declined from vote last year. The bill targets the advancement of internet communication freedom by requiring the U.S. State Department to annually designate countries which are “internet-restricting countries,” create an Office of Global Internet Freedom to monitor and develop strategies to keep internet communication free, and introduces restrictions on U.S. internet companies in order to protect the personal information of their clients and increase internal securities. (Read the full version of HR 2271).
To affirm the Congressmen’s efforts, ChinaAid joined ten other concerned human rights organizations in supporting the Global Online Freedom Act, by issuing the following letter:
“NGO Joint Statement in Support of H.R. 2271, Global Online Freedom Act of 2009”
Dear Representative Smith,
We write to reaffirm our strong support for your legislation, the new Global Online Freedom Act of 2009 (GOFA). The new GOFA is an important bill which will effectively prevent repressive governments from pressuring or coercing US IT companies to cooperate with them in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance.
The Internet has given people living under repressive governments unprecedented opportunities to communicate with each other and to learn about the outside world in ways that their governments forbid. But repressive governments have developed technologies of repression, and they have sought to make Internet and technology companies cooperate in their repression. China, for example, has coerced Yahoo! to turn over its secret cyber police records of political dissidents who send sensitive information over email. In 2005 one such dissident, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being identified by Yahoo. China has also convinced Microsoft to shut down Internet blogs in which Chinese users were criticizing their government, and persuaded Google to censor its search engine results. Chinese citizens using Google’s Chinese search engine now cannot even learn of the existence of information about human rights and democracy on the Internet, including that found on U.S. government supported Web sites such as the Voice of America.
Internet companies argue that people living under repressive governments such as China are better off if U.S. companies are there to influence the development of this medium. We agree – so long as U.S. companies set a higher standard with respect to privacy and free expression than do local providers in these societies. Thus far, and despite the commendable effort to organize the Global Network Initiative, the leading U.S. companies have not been able to do so. But this legislation would help ensure that American Internet companies are forces of increased respect for human rights and not tools of further repression. With the Global Online Freedom Act, when the secret police of a repressive government ask an American Internet company to turn over personally identifying information about a political dissident, that company will have to notify the Attorney General, who will have the authority to order the company not to comply.
Crucially, the bill would make it more difficult for repressive governments to obtain Internet user information from U.S. companies when seeking to punish dissidents or other individuals for exercising their right to free expression, as user data would have to be stored outside countries such as China that use such information to jail its citizens. In addition, the bill prohibits U.S. companies from disclosing to officials of repressive countries such as China personally identifying user information except for legitimate law enforcement purposes. Decisions about what information can be disclosed would be made by the U.S. government, removing this burden from the companies involved.
By moving quickly to pass this bill, Congress would send a clear message that US technology firms cannot be forced to violate international human rights standards. It would signal to people around the world that the United States will act to defend free expression on the Internet.
Thank you for introducing this important legislation and working for its speedy enactment.
Reporters Without Borders
Human Rights Watch
Wei Jingsheng Foundation
China Information Center
Laogai Research Foundation
International Campaign for Tibet
China Aid Association
PEN American Center
World Press Freedom Committee
Click here for a full PDF version of the letter.
ChinaAid believes that the preservation of internet freedom plays a key role in support of human rights worldwide. We encourage international governments to take a strong stance in defense of human rights, by establishing policies to keep access to information free for all citizens.