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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Congressman: New Policy Puts Internet Repressive Regimes on Notice

At a U.S. State Department briefing on its new strategy on global Internet freedom, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) yesterday praised the agency for taking a first step to promote Internet freedom and announced that he plans to reintroduce the "Global Online Freedom Act" to expand the government's efforts to promote free expression and a free flow of information on the Internet in every country.

"This is a historic day. Today, the U.S. is taking the first steptoward tearing down the Great Firewall. The repressive regimes and the businesses that enable the censorship, political persecution and stiflingof human rights need to understand that there will be more scrutiny tofollow and they must change their ways," says Smith, outgoing chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations.

The State Department's Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT) strategy announced yesterday is organized around three priorities -- monitoring Internet freedom in countries around the world, responding to challenges to Internet freedom and expanding access to the Internet. The GIFT Strategy aims to achieve these priorities by -- among other things -- spotlighting and protesting abuses of Internet freedom, pressing the message of Internet freedom in official dialogue and promoting innovative approaches to combat Internet censorship, Smith says.

Smith, who in February held a hearing on the issue of Internet freedom, says this strategy "sends the message that the U.S. government means business."

Smith adds, "This new strategy puts internet repressive regimes on notice and shows we mean business, but it also sends a message to the corporations that are enabling these abuses that it is good business to promote human rights."

"The Global Online Freedom Act" seeks to codify the U.S. strategy announced today and go further by prohibiting U.S. Internet companies from cooperating with repressive regimes that restrict information about humanrights and democracy on the Internet and use personally identifiable information to track down and punish democracy activists. The bill would make it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information togovernments who use that information to suppress dissent.

"There are two pillars to every dictatorship -- secret police and propaganda. The Internet companies that comply with these regimes enable dictatorships to impose both pillars by allowing them to spread lies and find people whose only crime is wanting freedom and democracy," says Smith.

Authoritarian regimes including China, Belarus, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran,Laos, North Korea, Tunisia, and Vietnam are all known to block, restrict and monitor the free flow of information on the Internet, Smith says. In some of themore egregious cases, democracy activists have been tracked down and incarcerated for their online communications. American companies Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Cisco Systems have willingly assisted repressive regimes to censor information, monitor Internet usage and punish political dissidents.

Smith first introduced his legislation just days after he convened hisday long hearing at which representatives from the major US Internet firms Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! and Cisco Systems testified that they have complied with censorship laws and/or provided personally identifiable information about Internet users to repressive regimes in countries where they do business.

The "Global Online Freedom Act" was approved by the House International Relations Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations Subcommittee earlier this year, but time ran out before it could beconsidered by the full House during the recently closed 109th Congress.

"These dictatorships have enlisted American companies to aid and abettheir Internet censorship campaigns to prevent the spread of democracy andquash any discussion of dissent. We need to make it clear to thesecompanies that they need to understand they have a responsibility to standwith the oppressed, not the oppressor. My bill will hold them to that standard and I will work to enact it into law in the next Congress," says Smith.

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