Republican Congressman Chris Smith has an editorial in the Wall Street Journal today calling for passage of the Global Online Freedom Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives after a full day of hearings on February 15th. I agree with Smith’s general point:
We are at a point where leading U.S. companies like Google, Yahoo, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised both the integrity of their product and their duties as responsible corporate citizens in order to compete in the world's largest market. The ability to communicate openly is the key to unlock the doors to freedom for those who cannot feel its touch, and IT companies can help to provide that. As Americans, we need to empower those who seek the path of democracy, not stifle their ability to speak out.
I also agree with parts of the proposed legislation: provisions that would forbid storage of user data on servers inside China, would make it illegal to sell equipment or services to law enforcement agencies in countries like China and would enable victims of Yahoo!'s police collaboration to sue Yahoo! in US court. These things all make sense.
But. A big “but.”
There are some other things in the bill as it currently stands that I disagree with and which I discussed in an article I wrote for The Nation. The act would require US Internet companies to hand over all lists of forbidden words provided to them by "any foreign official of an Internet-restricting country" (as defined by the US State Department) to a specially created US government office. It would also require companies to report all content deleted or blocked at the request of the host government to the same government office. This would put US companies in a tough position in foreign markets if they are perceived to be US government stooges - which this Act would in effect require them to be. The Act would also result in US companies handing over Chinese user information to the
We should not allow American companies to act in ways that contradict fundamental American values. But we must act in a way that respects the rights of people in other countries as much as we respect our own rights. The Global Online Freedom Act of 2006 is the beginning of a conversation about what needs to be done. But in its current form, it should not be the last word.
Other free-speech advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have similar concerns. I have a lot of respect for friends like Julien Pain at Reporters Without Borders who says he is going to lobby to get the GOFA passed. But I would frankly rather see a dialogue between congress, the affected companies, human rights groups, and free speech activists to come up with something that won’t be counterproductive in a number of important ways.