The legislation aims to create a federal Office of Global Internet Freedom and gives it $16 million to spend over the next two years. The office would be tasked with an unusual mission for a government agency: devising technical methods to prevent other nations from censoring the Internet.
"These regimes have been aggressively blocking access to the Internet with technologies such as firewalls, filters and black boxes," said Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., sponsor of the bill and Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "In addition, these oppressive regimes habitually monitor activity on the Internet, including e-mail and message boards...The Global Internet Freedom Act will give millions of people around the globe the power to outwit repressive regimes that would silence them, and to protect themselves from reprisals in the process."
Cox's measure is embedded in a much larger bill--which the House approved by a 382-42 vote--that would fund the State Department for the next few years. It directs the Office of Global Internet Freedom to "develop and implement a comprehensive global strategy to combat state-sponsored and state-directed Internet jamming, and persecution of those who use the Internet." In practice, the money will likely to go fund Web services that let Internet users .
An earlier version of the legislation, introduced in October, would have given the office a far larger sum: $100 million over two years.
If the Senate follows the House's lead and approves the appropriations bill, the new office would be organized under the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a federal agency that was created in 1999 to consolidate nonmilitary broadcasting by the federal government. It also is home to the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Asia.
As the Internet has grown in importance, some foreign governments have moved to curb their citizens' abilities to access Web sites and other resources in other nations.
A report titled "The Internet Under Surveillance," published last month by Reporters Without Borders, a journalists' advocacy group, paints a stark picture of an increasingly controlled Internet.
In Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), for instance, the ruling military junta monitors e-mail and drastically limits access to the outside Internet. "Fewer than 10,000 people are allowed to use the substitute Internet, the local Myanmar Wide Web intranet set up by the regime, but only a few dozen mainly service or administrative sites, all government-approved, are accessible," the report says. "Even that is hard to log on to, since until very recently, only one cybercafe, at the university, had free access to Myanmar Wide Web."
Cox is a longtime China hawk who chaired the committee that investigated whether the Clinton administration let the Chinese government acquire sensitive missile technology in exchange for campaign contributions. Since introducing his Global Internet Freedom Act last fall, Cox has taken pains to highlight that country's human rights record.
"The Chinese government, and sadly, too many other regimes around the world, have been aggressively blocking access to the Internet, monitoring Internet activity and punishing those who seek only to share information," Cox testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission last month.
Lance Cottrell, president of Anonymizer.com, which offers software for online privacy and security, lauded moves such as Cox's to take restrictions off Internet access.
"It's really important that we stand up and try to make free access to information available--and that it not merely be piping in a particular American perspective, but allowing these people access to any set of opinions," Cottrell said. "There are a lot of places in the world that are doing a lot of censorship. The Internet has an opportunity to live up to its billing as the single greatest democratizing technology ever invented."