On Legislating Global Internet Freedom

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Richard Stiennon

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There is a disturbing tendency on the part of the US Congress to legislate the Internet.  A case in point is HR 2271 backed by eleven US Represntatives and submitted to review by the House Energy and Commerce and Foreign Affairs Commitees last May(2009). 

Thankfully, there has been no serious deliberation on this proposed measure which intends to somehow regulate the Internet to promote, ironically, freedom of speech.  In its preamble the intent is well articulated:

To prevent United States businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance, to fulfill the responsibility of the United States Government to promote freedom of expression on the Internet, to restore public confidence in the integrity of United States businesses, and for other purposes.

Reading between the lines you can discern that this bill was proposed in part in a reaction to Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft engaging in less than ethical collusion with the Chinese government; activities that have led to incarceration of bloggers and restrictions on access to information.

The Bill has sections devoted to:

Creating an annual report that identifies those countries that engage in restrictive Internet activity (105.) Would this watch list contain Australia which is setting up a massive filtering infrastructure to protect its citizens from the less tasteful content on the Internet?  Would it include Germany which has attempted to ban hacking tools? Or the EU which has considered blocking searches that include certain key words like “bomb”?  Would it identify the US which, thanks to widespread eavesdropping on ATT’s network by the NSA has frightened businesses away from ever hosting data in a country where they perceive that data to be unsafe from snooping?

Setting up the Office of Global Internet Freedom reporting to the Secretary of State and led by a Director(104.) I suspect just the name of this department will create additional work for the State Department to smooth ruffled feathers of those that may take umbrage to the US unilaterally setting Global policies of any sort.   Ironically the only defined task for this Office will be to “ identify key words, terms, and phrases relating to human rights, democracy, religious free exercise, and peaceful political dissent..” an activity that in itself smacks of thought control. 

Section 203 requires any US company that imposes changes to their search results at the behest of one of the listed countries must report it to the Director of The Office of Global Internet Freedom (DOGIF). 

Section 204 has similar regulatory burdens for any US company that hosts information.  This is obviously targeted at Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo,  but there are thousands of online content and search engine companies that could fall under these requirements.

HR 2271 also points out in its preamble:

“ A number of United States businesses have enabled the Internet censorship and surveillance of repressive governments by selling these governments or their agents technology or training.”

Luckily it stops short of proposing the restriction of sale of that technology. It is hoped that the backers realized the tremendous damage they could inflict on the US’s networking industry if they attempted to restrict commerce to the extent necessary to stop the sale of all technology that can be used for restricting access to information. It would include all firewalls, routers, and content inspection technology.

There seems little danger of HR 2271 ever coming to a vote but…We must keep a wary eye on this 111th Congress that has over 40 measures under consideration that bear on highly technical issues. A misstep could be costly and have debilitating consequences for a fragile economy.  

Global Internet Freedom will be best served by governments of all types avoiding any meddling in the still young Internet.

Cross-posted from ThreatChaos

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