It's back. The Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 has been reintroduced as the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 by U.S. Congressman Chris Smith. Here is the full text of the press release issued by Smith's office. The proposed legislation (which didn't get very far in Congress last year) GOFA aims to do the following:
- Prohibits US companies from disclosing to foreign officials of an "Internet Restricting Country" information that personally identifies a particular user except for "legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes;"
- Creates a private right of action for individuals aggrieved by the disclosure of such personal identification to file suit in any US district court;
- Prohibits US internet service providers from blocking online content of US government or US-government financed sites;
- Authorizes $50 million for a new interagency office within the State Department charged with developing and implementing a global strategy to combat state-sponsored internet jamming by repressive countries;
- Requires the new Office of Global Internet Freedom to monitor filtered terms; and to work with Internet companies and the non-profit sector to develop a voluntary code of minimum corporate standards related to Internet freedom.
- Requires Internet companies to disclose to the new Office of Global Internet Freedom the terms they filter and the parameters they must meet in order to do business in Internet Restricting Countries;
- Requires the President to submit to Congress an annual report designating as an "Internet Restricting Country" any nation that systematically and substantially restrict internet freedom;
- Establishes civil penalties for businesses (up to $2 million) and individuals (up to $100,000) for violations of the new requirements;
- Mandates a feasibility study, by the Department of Commerce, to determine what type of restrictions and safeguards should be imposed on the export of computer equipment which could be used in an Internet Restricting Country to restrict Internet freedom.
While I have been plenty critical of U.S. companies' complicity in stifling free speech in China and elsewhere, I have gotten into some fairly heated arguments with some of my friends who work for human rights organizations about their endorsement of this legislation as it currently stands. It is, in my view an overly blunt instrument and promotes an oversimplistic world view that divides the world into "good" countries versus "bad" countries and legislates corporate behavior accordingly. Click here for a long post I wrote back in July explaining why I'm not a big GOFA fan. My main beef is that it sets up the U.S. as some kind of gold standard for online free speech, and arrogantly presumes that it is fair to ask U.S. companies to allow the U.S. government to determine what is in the best interest of their non-U.S. users. A small excerpt of that long post:
Legislation that does not acknowledge the need to require companies operating EVERYWHERE protect ALL Internet users from ANY AND ALL government encroachment of their universally recognized rights to free speech will be viewed as hypocritical if not hostile by many of the people whose are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the legislation in the first place.
The chances of GOFA passing in its current form aren't huge anyway, I would wager. But it has served a useful function in several ways. First, it has spurred several socially responsible investment funds to consider human rights standards and practices when making decisions about investments in technology companies. Second, it has brought publicity to the issue and sparked media coverage. Third, it has scared companies into considering how to revise their own standards and practices, realizing that if they don't do something, Congress may well hit them with a blunt instrument eventually. As I wrote in November, there has been a quiet, closed door effort under way to get a group of major multinational Internet and telecoms companies to sign onto the process of drafting a code of conduct in conjunction with a number of human rights groups, free speech organizations, and academic institutions.
Over time I think we can expect to see the industry developing a set of frameworks and processes similar to what we now have with environmental and labor standards. They're imperfect, but a lot better than nothing. The goal, based on the meetings I have attended, is to develop a truly global set of standards that neither targets specific countries nor exempts others. I hope that we can find a non-confrontational way to bring Asian companies, including Chinese companies, into the discussions. When a company seeks to take its Internet services global - as many Chinese companies seek to do - building trust with users is critical. They need to convince users that they aren't extensions of the Chinese government abroad, just as U.S. companies have to convince their global users that they're not agents of the U.S. government abroad. Signing on to a voluntary global code of ethics for protecting user privacy and freedom of expression would be a great way to start.