Washington, Apr 25 - U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a senior Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee met this week with Robert Menard, founder of the leading human rights group Reporter’s Without Borders redoubling their lobbying efforts to move Smith’s bill, the Global Online Freedom Act (HR 275) to the House floor for a vote ahead of the Beijing Olympics this summer.
“Yesterday, China announced that the number of Internet users in their country has now matched the number of users in the US. What they do not tell you, though, is that users in China are blocked from many sites especially those that talk about fundamental freedoms and democracy. Additionally, Chinese citizens who courageously find a way to use the internet to promote democracy are often harassed and/or imprisoned,” said Smith whose bill was approved by the Foreign Affairs Committee late last year.
“American high-tech firms have produced the technology and know-how that has led to a modern-day information revolution. Sadly, however, instead of working to allow everyone to benefit from these advancements, these same high-tech firms are colluding with dictators and tyrannical regimes such as China to suppress human rights information and punish pro-democracy advocates,” said Smith.
Smith’s Global Online Freedom Act will promote online freedom by prohibiting U.S. Internet companies—such as Yahoo! and Google—from cooperating with repressive regimes that restrict information about human rights and democracy on the Internet and use personally identifiable information to track down and punish democracy activists. The bill would make it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments who use that information to suppress dissent.
According to Menard’s organization, Reporters Without Borders, approximately 30 journalists and 50 Internet users are currently detained in China.
“The gross mistake of allowing China to host the Olympics in light of its horrific human rights record will be significantly compounded if we do not speak up and call attention to the human rights heroes who languish in Chinese jails,” Smith said. “We also need to take action to protect journalists and pro-democracy activists who may otherwise become the next victims after the spotlight provided by the Olympics is gone from the world’s center stage.
“Who can forget that when they were vying for the 2000 Olympics, the Chinese government let Wei Jingsheng out of prison. I met him in Beijing when he was let out, very briefly. As soon as they didn’t get the Olympics, they rearrested him and beat him and tortured him.” said Smith, who has chaired over 25 Congressional hearings on human rights in China. Smith noted that a few years later China finally re-released Wei Jingsheng but only because he was quite ill and close to death.
Recently, Reporters Without Borders teamed up with 12 of the world’s leading human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to publicly endorsed Smith’s Global Online Freedom Act (HR 275). In their letter to Smith the groups said:
“In countries with repressive governments such as China, the Internet has given people unprecedented opportunities to communicate with each other and to lean about the outside world in ways that their governments forbid. But undemocratic government regimes are back, by making Internet and technology company’s allies in their repression. Chinese citizens using Google’s Chinese search engine now cannot even learn of the existence of information about human rights and democracy on the Internet, including that found on U.S. government supported websites such as the Voice of America.
“By moving quickly to pass this bill in advance of the Beijing Olympics, Congress would send a clear message that US technology firms cannot be forced to violate international human rights standards. It would signal to people around the world that the United States will act to defend free expression on the Internet.”
Specifically, the “Global Online Freedom Act”:
• 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;
• Establishes 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 government feasibility study 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.