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United States18 July 2006

Fourteen human rights organisations express support for a US draft law on free expression online (GOFA)

Fourteen human rights organisations, including Reporters Without Borders, signed a statement on 18 July in support of the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) which is currently under debate in the US House of Representatives. The signatories said the law would prevent Internet sector companies helping governments of authoritarian countries, particularly the Chinese, from cracking down on freedom of expression.

NGOs Joint Statement in support of H.R. 4780, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006

July 18, 2006

Chairman Christopher H. Smith Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operation

We write in support of HR 4780, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006, in its effort to prevent US companies from carrying out or facilitating the suppression of online speech in China and other countries.

In repressive societies such as China, the Internet has given people unprecedented opportunities to communicate with each other and to learn about the outside world in ways that their governments forbid. But undemocratic governments are now fighting back, by making Internet and technology companies allies in their repression. China, for example, has pressured 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 recently 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, including that found on U.S. government supported websites such as the Voice of America.

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. We agree - so long as U.S. companies set a higher standard with respect to privacy and free expression than do local providers in these societies. Thus far, the leading U.S. companies are not doing so. And realistically, they are unlikely to stand up alone to governments in countries like China without clear rules of the road and strong engagement from the U.S. government. H.R. 4780 would compel more transparency about company practices when they operate in repressive countries.

Crucially, the bill would make it more difficult for repressive governments to obtain Internet user information from U.S. companies when seeking to punish dissidents or other individuals for exercising their right to free expression, as user data would have to be stored outside countries such as China that use such information to jail its citizens. In addition, the bill prohibits U.S. companies from disclosing to officials of repressive countries such as China personally identifying user information except for legitimate law enforcement purposes.

Thank you for supporting this important legislation and working for its speedy enactment.

-  Reporters Without Borders
-  Amnesty International
-  Human Rights Watch
-  China Information Center
-  CPJ
-  Earth Rights International
-  Laogai Research Foundation
-  National Economic and Social Rights Initiative
-  PEN American Center
-  Religious Freedom Coalition
-  Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights
-  Secretariat of the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net)
-  Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia

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