House committee okays latest version of GOFA

The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights approved by voice vote the latest iteration of the Global Online Freedom Act.

The bill, which now moves to consideration by the full Foreign Affairs Committee, was actually a substitute amendment offered by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who is the bill's main sponsor.

The amended bill adds a safe-harbor provision exempting companies that participate in the Global Network Initiative from the bill's requirement to report interactions with foreign governments to the Securities and Exchange Commission. A Smith staffer told The Hill that there was hope that the safe-harbor provision would encourage companies to join the GNI. Another change established an exemption in the export control rules for government-owned telecommunications companies.

The GOFA has a much better chance of passing the House this year because it's a "very different bill" from those introduced in past years under the same name.

This bill is a "dramatic step forward," said a senior Smith staffer, because it removes the "more onerous" requirements to report to the Justice department or face criminal penalties -- provisions that had been the centerpiece of previous editions. Instead, this year's bill errs on the side of transparency and corporate social responsibility. The criminal provisions were the source of much of the criticism previous versions of the bill received, and were a likely reason the bill hadn't advanced far in recent years.

GOFA doesn't yet have a companion bill in the Senate, according to the Smith staffer. But The Hill was told that several Senators have reached out with the intent of sponsoring a Senate version. A Foreign Affairs spokesperson said there was not yet a timetable for the full committee to take up the bill.