EU Follows U.S. Legislative Effort to Promote Global Internet Freedom
July 17, 2008
Filed under International
Freedom House held a Capitol Hill briefing July 15th on global Internet freedom. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Jules Maaten of the European Union Parliament discussed their joint efforts to pass legislation aimed at promoting online free expression and privacy in repressive countries like China. CDT is generally supportive of the goals of Rep. Smith's Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA). We agree that statutorily creating a State Department office dedicated to Internet freedom and mandating annual reports on the Internet human rights practices of various countries are good ideas. But we believe other provisions of the bill will likely not be effective and may even be counterproductive. For example, storing user data outside a country is not a fool-proof way of avoiding that country's assertion of jurisdiction over the information; and requiring disclosure of filtered search terms may create a "race to the bottom" when repressive regimes realize what's not being filtered. Mr. Maaten of the EU revealed that he was inspired by the U.S. bill when drafting his own "EU Global Online Freedom Act." He explained that controlling exports of hardware and software that facilitate Internet censorship and surveillance are a major concern in Europe. This is a concern in the U.S., too, but much of the focus has been on technology companies' blocking websites and handing over users' personal information in response to government demands or to comply with domestic laws. It was good to hear both Mr. Maaten and Rep. Smith agree that trade policy can have an impact on human rights by, for example, challenging Internet censorship as a trade barrier and not granting "most favored nation status" to repressive countries like China without addressing human rights abuses; though Rep. Smith stated that trade policy alone won't solve the problem of Internet repression. Mr. Maaten also highlighted the importance of the EU supporting the development and distribution of anti-censorship technological tools and services, which his proposed directive addresses. CDT has no doubt that there is room for legislation in the fight against Internet repression, which could nicely compliment an initiative we have been co-facilitating to create voluntary global Internet human rights principles for technology companies. We agree with Rep. Smith that governments' use of the Internet to limit the free flow of information, push propaganda, spy on citizens and squash dissent is a "terrible misuse of what can be a very liberating technology." The question is: What kind of legislation is going to be most effective and not counter-productive? Mr. Maaten expressed his belief in the importance of companies conducting human rights risk assessments before entering new markets or introducing new products. This was great to hear given that CDT believes such assessments are key to guiding companies in how to mitigate the risk that their users' human rights will be violated. John Ruggie, the UN special representative for business and human rights, similarly calls for "due diligence" by companies operating in tough legal markets. Interestingly, Mr. Maaten frankly stated that human rights are often considered an "annoyance" and "irritant," and that EU treaty negotiators prefer talking about other things like trade and cultural exchanges rather than the protection of human rights. He believes that human rights should be more seriously considered by the EU than they currently are. He plans on launching his "EU GOFA" today, but noted that the European Commission, which unlike the Parliament has authority to pass directives, may not take up the draft legislation until 2010 following elections next year. Rep. Smith made an impassioned plea for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring GOFA to a floor vote. He noted that there have been some criticisms of the bill and openly stated that he would "gladly" entertain suggested changes if that would move the legislation forward - but only if such edits do not alter the basic principles of the bill. It's not clear what Rep. Smith means exactly. But we do hope that he will take a second look at GOFA and consider what new or alternative strategies, such as human rights risk assessments, might be effective in combating Internet repression. Irrespective of the pros and cons of both GOFAs, it's good to see political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic taking a leadership role on the very important issue of global Internet freedom.