House set to move 'online freedom' bill

A House subcommittee is scheduled to vote on a bill on Tuesday that aims to prevent U.S. companies from helping foreign regimes crack down on Internet freedom.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) has been pushing the Global Online Freedom Act for several years, but the issue has gained more attention after countries including Egypt and Syria began shutting down Internet access and blocking websites to quell popular uprisings.

ADVERTISEMENT
Pakistan sparked an international outcry earlier this year when it began publicly soliciting proposals for technologies that would allow it to block its citizens from accessing objectionable Internet content.

Smith is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, and an aide confirmed that the subcommittee will markup up the legislation on Tuesday.

“We have overwhelming evidence from Pakistan, Syria, Iran, China and many other countries that with the assistance of Western technology, the Internet is becoming a ‘weapon of mass surveillance,’” Smith told The Hill.

An aide to Smith said he expects the subcommittee will approve the bill and that the full Foreign Affairs Committee will take up the measure in "the near future."

The bill has also been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

The bill would bar U.S. companies from exporting technologies to "Internet restricting countries" if the products could be used to censor the Web or spy on people's Internet activity.

The measure would also require Internet providers and search engines to disclose their policies for cooperating with censorship requests from restrictive foreign regimes.

The State Department would have the authority to decide which countries receive the designation of an "Internet restricting country."

Google expressed concerns with a previous version of Smith's bill in 2006, but a company spokeswoman provided a neutral statement on the latest version.

"We're reviewing the bill and look forward to working with the committee on how to ensure the online free flow of information across borders," she said.

David Hardin, an international trade attorney, said that in addition to the bill's regulations, it would raise publicity about companies cooperating with oppressive regimes and could pressure them to change their behavior.

But he said the measure could create diplomatic challenges for the United States. He noted that the U.S. has close relations with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia even though "governments in those countries are known to conduct severe intelligence."

An official State Department designation as an "Internet restricting country" could harm U.S. relations with those countries, Hardin said.

He also said some foreign countries use Internet spying technology to collect intelligence on terrorist groups and share that information with the U.S.  Cutting off their access to the technology could harm the United States' ability to obtain intelligence, according to Hardin.

But he said he believes the bill is "worthwhile."

"I'm frankly surprised there hasn't been more movement on it," he said. 

More in Technology

FCC chief hopes to move 'quickly' on net neutrality

Read more »