Reporters Without Borders

“To combat Internet censorship, companies cannot be left to act on their own”

Published on Thursday 7 May 2009.
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Reporters Without Borders welcomes today’s introduction of a new version by the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) in the US House of Representatives. Drafted at the initiative of Republican representative Chris Smith, the law aims to prevent US companies from “cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance.”

Inspired in part by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it also aims to ensure that the US government fulfils its responsibility “to promote freedom of expression on the Internet” and “restore public confidence in the integrity of US businesses.”

“If adopted, this bill will be significant advance for online free expression,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We call for it to be passed as soon as possible. Companies cannot combat censorship in their own. By turning the US government into a referee, the GOFA’s new version is an alternative solution that prevents US companies from being accomplices to the violation of international standards on protection of free expression.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “Internet users have been jailed as a result of requests to US companies made by repressive governments. This happened at least four times with Yahoo!.”

Under the new version of the GOFA, US companies operating in repressive countries would be required to keep a record of any request made by the government of that country for the identification of an Internet user, together with a record of the company’s response to the request. This information would have to be passed to the US justice department which, if it questioned the request’s legitimacy, could order the company to refuse. Companies that did not comply with the law could be fined.

Like the previous version of the GOFA, approved by the House foreign affairs committee on 23 October 2007, the new version would forbid US Internet companies to keep client information on servers located in repressive countries. It also provides for a study to determine the feasibility of imposing export controls on products that could be used by repressive governments to control the Internet.

If the GOFA is adopted, US companies will no longer be able to censor US government websites or US government-sponsored websites abroad, and will have to act with transparency. Information about any Internet filtering they implement will have to be passed to an Office of Global Internet Freedom, which will have the job of defining US government strategy for promoting the free flow of information online and monitoring violations.

The Office of Global Internet Freedom will be able to order a US company to refuse to cooperate with a request from a foreign government if it does not consider the request to be “legitimate” or in compliance with existing legislation governing the disclosure of personal information. The Office will also be tasked with encouraging companies, NGO representatives and experts to draft a voluntary code of conduct. Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft – three US companies that have often been criticised for agreeing to censor themselves in China – have adhered to the Global Internet Network’s principles of free expression and respect for privacy since December 2008.

Reporters Without Borders added: “As well as being complementary, the GOFA and the code of conduct adopted by the leading US Internet companies in December 2008 suggest that companies and governments have been involved in very serious online free expression violations.”

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