A House Foreign Affairs panel approved legislation on Tuesday that seeks to bar U.S. companies from helping foreign countries in trying to censor the Internet or monitor their citizens' Internet or mobile communications.
The legislation approved by the Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Subcommittee would require the State Department to identify by name in its annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices the countries that restrict access to the Internet. It also would bar U.S. firms from exporting to these countries hardware or software that could be used to spy on or censor citizens.
The Global Online Freedom Act would also require companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission what types of information they share with repressive regimes and whether they notify users when they block access to content at their request. Subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., the bill's sponsor, has said this last provision would allow human rights activists to pressure U.S. companies not to engage in such practices.
Smith said governments like China, Iran and Syria are "transforming the Internet into a weapon of mass surveillance."
China infamously has set up an Internet firewall designed to block its citizens from accessing information that the government opposes. Some U.S. tech companies have come under fire for working with repressive governments like China. Members of the spiritual group Falun Gong accused Cisco in a lawsuit last year of selling and customizing its networking equipment to help China censor the Internet, a claim the company has denied. And several years ago Yahoo was criticized for providing information to the Chinese government about a dissident journalist, who was imprisoned as a result.
Yahoo has come out in support of the latest version of Smith's bill after he made some changes to address industry concerns. A substitute version of the bill adopted by the panel would provide companies with a safe harbor from having to disclose the information to the SEC if those firms join the Global Network Initiative. The group requires its members to adhere to a set of principles aimed at promoting human rights and freedom of expression and privacy.
"We are grateful for your tireless efforts in working with us, human rights groups, academics and others to craft a reasoned, meaningful effort that will push all online companies to responsible engagement in countries around the world," Yahoo Vice President of Global Public Policy David Hantman said in a recent letter to Smith.
Despite this, the bill faces an uphill battle in Congress. Smith has introduced similar versions of the legislation in past years but those measures haven't gone far.