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Background Information on Global Online Freedom Act

In many countries, the Internet has given people unprecedented opportunities to communicate with each other and to learn about the outside world. But repressive governments are now fighting back, by making Internet and technology companies allies in their repression.

China, for example, has asked Yahoo to turn over to its secret police the names of political dissidents who send sensitive information over email. One such dissident, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being identified by Yahoo. China has also convinced Microsoft to shut down Internet blogs in which Chinese users were criticizing their government, and persuaded Google to censor its search engine results. Chinese citizens using Google’s Chinese search engine now cannot even learn of the existence of information about human rights and democracy on the Internet.

Internet companies argue that people in closed societies such as China are better off if U.S. companies are there to influence the development of this medium. However, so far, the leading U.S. companies are not influencing development in this way.

The Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 has been proposed in Congress to help stop U.S. companies from teaming up with foreign governments to violate human rights.

The legislation would make it more difficult for foreign governments to obtain Internet user information from U.S. companies when seeking to punish dissidents exercising their right to free expression, and would alert the U.S. government as to what subject matter these governments are asking U.S. companies to remove or block access to on the Internet.

This bill would help ensure that the Internet remains an open forum for free expression in every part of the world, and help American companies resist pressure from foreign governments to compromise their principles. The key provisions of the Act a) Prohibit U.S. companies from locating personally identifiable information in a foreign country that represses freedom of expression, b) Restrict U.S. companies from providing foreign repressive governments with personally identifiable information of users (except for legitimate law enforcement purposes), c) Require U.S. companies to report to Congress on the content they are blocking or filtering.

Internet companies have an invaluable role to play in the realization of freedom of expression and information. This bill helps them to fulfill that role by requiring them to tell the U.S. government what terms they are using to filter, limit or affect search results based on a request or policy of a repressive government, and the content they are removing or blocking. This is essential if we are to combat restrictions on freedom of expression for people around the world.

Amnesty International, along with other key NGOs, has issued a joint statement of support of this groundbreaking legislation. Your Member of Congress is key to ensuring this Bill helps preserve freedom of expression and open access to information on the Internet.

Learn more about internet censorship and the role of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.