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Bill would circumvent foreign censors

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would fight Net censorship abroad, allocating $100 million over the next two years to develop and promote anti-blocking technology.

A new bill designed to fight foreign Web censorship has been introduced in Congress.

The legislation, unveiled Wednesday by Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., would create an Office of Global Internet Freedom charged with fighting Internet blocking and helping Web users in countries such as China and Syria get around censorship efforts and avoid punishment. The bill also would allocate $50 million each year over the next two years to develop and promote anti-blocking technology.

"Just as past governments have banned pamphlets, jammed radios and committed their gravest atrocities out of the range of TV cameras, many governments are attempting to restrict an individual's freedom to receive and exchange information by blocking the Internet," Cox said in a statement.

The bill, designed to counter authoritarian governments' efforts to block their citizens from the Internet, would provide technological means to circumvent censorship tools. The legislation's policy statement specifically mentions software, including SafeWeb's Triangle Boy, Peek-a-Booty and DynaWeb, and peer-to-peer network Freenet-China.

The bill also would require the submission of a United Nations resolution condemning countries that censor the Web and would require an annual report on nations that abuse Web freedoms.

Access to foreign Internet sites has exposed citizens of countries with restrictive governments to a wide range of news and material they were unable to read otherwise. As a result, countries such as China and North Korea have stepped up their censorship efforts.

For example, Chinese officials recently arrested a writer who posted information about that country's problems on U.S.-based Web pages, and China's government blocked access to Google and AltaVista last month.

Although the amount of money allocated to anti-censorship tools is relatively small, it could spark a proliferation of products designed to circumvent filters both abroad and in the United States.

As a result, the bill could create an unintended clash between U.S. efforts to protect children from inappropriate material and attempts to thwart foreign governments from blocking citizen Web access. For example, federal law in the United States currently requires schools to filter content or lose federal funding, but some of the anti-censorship technology could help children get around the blocking.

But that debate will likely be put off until next year, if it occurs at all. In the final days of a session, before congressmen return home and turn their efforts to election season, many congressmen introduce bills that cover issues important to the lawmakers and to their constituents--even if they aren't likely to get a hearing. The lawmakers are essentially previewing issues they plan resurrect next year.

A similar anti-censorship technology bill is expected in the Senate.