The recent news that Google might be shuttering operations in China after government officials there tried to hack into email accounts of human rights activists has given Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) an opportunity to publicize a piece of legislation he’s been touting since 2006. On Capitol Hill last week, Smith held a press conference urging House speaker Nancy Pelosi to bring the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) to the floor.
The bill, if it were to become law, would ask information technology companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco to stop working with repressive governments. Google has already taken the lead, as it is no longer willing to censor its search engine for its Chinese users.
Additionally, the bill contains specific provisions to create an office of global Internet freedom that monitors internet freedom worldwide, which would aim to prevent U.S. information technology companies from enabling censorship. Congress has previously enacted a non-binding initiative that urged American information technology companies not to cooperate with repressive regimes but, according to Smith's spokesperson, that initiative "hasn’t worked." Now, with Google and China at a crossroad, the legislation could be passed: "We think that the speaker can put it up for a vote now," Smith's spokesperson told me.
Clothilde le Coz, the Washington Director of Reporters Without Borders, one of the organizations strongly supportive of the proposed legislation, told me that Google’s actions are historic: “What Google just did in China marks the first time that a foreign IT company decided to put the Chinese [people’s] rights ahead of government interest.”
Still, Pelosi has yet to bring the bill to the floor, which frustrates le Coz. “We almost got the bill to the floor…but now it is repoussé,” she told me. This piece of legislation is the “first step toward battling censorship.” But, for some reason, “it is as if the U.S. government does not want to talk about it.”