Promoting online freedom in repressive countries is at the core of the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) passed today by the House panel that oversees international human rights and chaired by Congressman Chris Smith (NJ-04).
At the markup 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.
"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.'"
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.
Rep. Smith, a senior member of Congress, is also the Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) and 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.