WASHINGTON—With Google’s announcement in January that it is no longer willing to censor search results in China, a new boost was given to the proposed Global Online Freedom Act, which can restrict U.S. companies from complying with demands of repressive countries that constrain freedom on the Internet. Democratic Congressman David Wu (Ore) is joining Republican Congressman Smith with the hope that this year Congress will pass the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) of 2009, H.R. 2271.

The two Congressmen held a news conference March 9 on Capitol Hill to announce that the Global Internet Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives was now a registered Congressional member organization, with Wu and Smith serving as co-chairs. Rep. Wu said the Caucus would serve as a forum to discuss online freedom issues and “address minimum standards of conduct for U.S. businesses that operate in Internet-suppressing countries.”

“The Global Internet Freedom Caucus will help create support in the House for meaningful Internet freedom legislation,” said Rep. Smith.

GOFA was crafted and first introduced by Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) in 2006.

Google has come around to Smith’s position. Initially opposing Internet freedom legislation, Google has endorsed Global Online Freedom Act since 2008. Google said in a letter of support provided at the news conference, “Online censorship is a growing global problem…More than 25 governments have blocked our services outright over the past few years.”


U.S. Government Could Help IT Companies Withstand Pressure to Censor

Smith said that Google’s recent experience with China’s censorship makes clear the need for U.S. government intervention.

“…IT companies are not powerful enough to stand up to a repressive government…they are inevitably forced to be more complicit in the repressive government’s censorship and surveillance.”

Internet companies like Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google have justified their cooperation with the Chinese Internet police—blocking web sites, filtering search engines and turning over to Chinese authorities the identity of users—on the grounds that “their mere presence in the Chinese market would change China,” but Chinese repression has only gotten worse, said Smith.

Not surprisingly, GOFA is endorsed by many human rights organizations—Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Pen American Center, Reporters Without Borders, to name a few.

The supporters of GOFA say that IT companies need the U.S. government to withstand the pressure from repressive Internet censorship governments of countries like China, Iran, Belarus, Cuba, Burma, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan—the 12 worst “Enemies of the Internet,” according to Clothilde Le Coz, from the Washington bureau of Reporters Without Borders.

Le Coz said that 120 netizens around the world are in jail; 72 of these are in China and 13 are in Iran. She said that in at least four of the cases in China, Yahoo was responsible for their being jail.

If GOFA is enacted, U.S. companies will be prohibited from holding personally identifiable information within countries designated as “Internet restricting countries.” An Office of Global Internet Freedom, housed in the State Department, would determine which countries fall into this category.

Under GOFA, any requests for personal data must be sent to the U.S. Attorney General, who will have the authority to prohibit businesses from complying with the request. U.S. companies will also be required to reveal the content they are blocking or censoring by orders of the repressive government, and U.S. companies will be prevented from blocking access to U.S. government Web sites, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

The aim of this legislation is to help Internet companies doing business in repressive countries by providing them the support they need to stand up to censorship. La Coz singled out China, Iran, Sudan and Cuba where businesses must comply with local law. Le Coz said that the IT companies repeatedly say in their defense that they have to obey local laws.

“GOFA is the only way for them to fight back,” said Le Coz.

Another Chance for GOFA

Rep. Smith said, “In the last Congress, [GOFA] was passed by three committees and was ready to go to the floor—and I believe it would have easily won a floor vote. But it was kept off the floor by heavy lobbying.”

Rep. Smith mentioned at the news conference that they have an understanding with Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman and with Speaker Nancy Pelosi that GOFA will make it to the House floor for a vote this time.

In spite of the backing of the U.S. government when dealing with countries which maintain hostile environments for Internet freedom, except for Google which reversed itself, IT companies are not enthusiastic about GOFA type bills, said Congressman Smith. He said that Microsoft is “not enamored with the idea,” and “Yahoo has had a mixed record.”

Congressman Wu insisted that the two bills are not anti-business. “The values of Internet society are pro-freedom and pro-empowerment. What we want to give the private sector are the tools to fight back…”

The opposition to GOFA is coming from the business community (especially computer business) and the Democratic leadership, according to GovTracks.us. This source is a nonpartisan organization that tracks the activities in the U.S. Congress, for the sake of “government transparency and civic education,” according to its website.

GovTrack.us listed the opponents of the 2007 GOFA bill: U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Retail Federation, Computer & Communications Industry Association, Microsoft, and National Association of Manufacturers and other pro-business organizations.

In the past, the Democratic leadership has not supported GOFA to make it to the floor for a vote. Only two of the nine cosponsors of GOFA are Democrats: David Wu and Brad Sherman (Calif.).