Tom Lantos Leaves Mark on Global Internet Freedom

Written by Leslie Harris

Many kind words have been said in the last 24 hours about the life and legacy of Congressman Tom Lantos, a champion of human rights who died over the weekend. It’s difficult to add anything meaningful to those tributes. But since this is an Internet policy blog, it is worth adding a postscript about Rep. Lantos‘ role in the last few years of his life as an advocate for global Internet freedom.

Lantos understood that the Internet was a transformative tool for human rights and he insisted that government and industry use every available means to keep the medium from being twisted into an instrument of government repression. To be sure, he was sometimes harsh in the tactics and rhetoric he used with respect to the conduct of the U.S. Internet industry in China, as well as in the policy prescriptions he advocated, most importantly H.R. 275, the Global Online Freedom Act (“GOFA“). While CDT believes that some provisions of GOFA are unworkable and unwise (CDT analyzed the law when it was introduced in 2006), there is no question that Lantos‘ passion and resolve made a difference.

Indeed, the Bush Administration has already embraced key parts of GOFA. The State Department launched a Global Online Freedom Initiative and human rights country reports now include assessments of Internet freedom. Countries like China are on notice that at least some leaders in the United States government are ready to take this issue seriously. More importantly, the attention he brought to the issue of global Internet freedom. His ideas added fuel the ongoing dialogue among Internet companies, human rights groups, social investors and others, aimed at drafting robust human rights principles to guide the sector when faced with government demands to censor content or access users’ personal information.

That process, facilitated by CDT and Business for Social Responsibility, should reach a conclusion in the next few months, and there is hope that it will produce principles that will take root as a global standard and help companies respond more effectively to threats to Internet freedom around the world.

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