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Internet Bill: The Internet is Not “Magic Freedom Juice”

The Internet is not “magic freedom juice.”

This is a favorite phrase of Internet scholar and activist (and CDT Fellow) Rebecca Mackinnon and a crucial point: technology not only creates opportunities for expression but also opportunities for censorship and surveillance.

Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, Chris Smith (R-N.J), clearly gets this. Earlier this week, his bill, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2012, which puts a spotlight on companies and technologies that facilitate censorship and surveillance – the dark side of the Internet, (GOFA) passed out of the Subcommittee.

This latest version of GOFA would:

  1. create new requirements for reporting on Internet freedom (to be undertaken by the Department of State and the US Trade Representative),
  2. require a range of publicly listed Internet and technology companies to report on how they respond to human rights risks, and
  3. place prohibitions on the export, to those countries designated as “Internet-restricting,” of technologies that “serve the primary purpose of” facilitating surveillance or censorship.

CDT has long emphasized that Internet and technology companies play a unique role facilitating both the exercise of rights and possible violations of rights (as with overbroad surveillance). And in recent years, thanks to work by organizations like the Global Network Initiative (GNI) and its members, as well as individuals such as John Ruggie, Frank LaRue, and Rebecca Mackinnon, norms have emerged around the responsibilities Internet companies have to protect the rights of their users.

But while some companies – such as GNI members Google, Microsoft, Websense, and Yahoo! – have stepped up and acknowledged these responsibilities in an accountable way, other companies have not been so forthright. GOFA, which Chairman Smith has introduced increasingly nuanced versions of over the past six years, is a commendable effort to grab the bull by the horns and demand that US companies and the US government think carefully about the impact that technologies produced stateside are having abroad. The Internet has become an essential tool for the defense of human rights globally, and CDT supports the critical objectives of this bill. Indeed, the bill could serve as a vital complement to the Global Network Initiative, addressing those companies that have not yet joined its ranks.

GOFA, however, is a complex bill. While it presents a number of sensible and innovative mechanisms for mitigating the negative impact of surveillance and censorship technologies, it also raises some difficult questions: can export controls be meaningfully extended in ways that reduce the spread of (to borrow words from Chairman Smith) “weapons of mass surveillance” without diminishing the ability of dissidents to connect and communicate? How can – and should – US companies engage with so-called “Internet-restricting” countries? As this bill progresses, we look forward to working with Rep. Smith and his staff on answers to these and other important questions.