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EUROPE TAKES ON GLOBAL INTERNET CENSORSHIP

Repressive regimes that buy U.S. and European technology to control their citizens in cyberspace may soon find that market closed, says Freedom House. Last week, European and U.S. lawmakers announced a rare joint initiative to pass legislation aimed at preventing sensitive surveillance and Internet-blocking technology from being sold to authoritarian governments, such as China and Egypt.

European Parliament Member Jules Maaten told the 70 people assembled at a Freedom House event in Washington, D.C. last week about his draft European Global Online Freedom Act. His legislation would regulate the export of European technology, such as ensuring that European companies do not locate their servers in repressive countries, and earmark 20 million Euros to support anti-censorship tools and services.

It would also make it a crime for European companies to store user information in or disclose it to Internet-restricting countries. Companies that do not respect the act's provisions would be penalised.

"Europe should promote freedom of speech as the basis of the Internet, especially now the Olympic Games are approaching," said Maaten. "We need to create more transparency surrounding the involvement of European Internet companies in online censorship. Human rights need also to be protected online through legislation that contains sanctions."

The European GOFA is supported by several cross party MEPs, including from the European People's Party, the Greens, and Maaten's party, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) are also backing the act.

U.S. Representative Christopher Smith introduced parallel legislation in the U.S. Congress last year, decrying the "very close relationship" that U.S. technology companies have with China's leadership.

US companies Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have been repeatedly criticised for censoring search engine results or shutting down blogs. Cisco Systems has been accused of providing China with online censorship technology.

It was Yahoo's "misunderstanding" that led to Chinese dissident Shi Tao being sentenced to 10 years behind bars for sending an email about Chinese media restrictions of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yahoo! helped Chinese police persecute Shi Tao by providing user information that led to his arrest. According to RSF, at least four cyber-dissidents have been convicted and jailed because of user information supplied by Yahoo! to the Chinese authorities.

RSF says it's not just U.S. companies that are working with the enemy. Telecom Italia, for example, owns part of the Cuban telecommunications company ETECSA, the only Internet service provider (ISP) available in Cuba. The French ISP Orange is involved in China, Vietnam and Egypt, which all make RSF's list of "Internet Enemies". The German company KCC Europe supplies North Korea with Internet access under an exclusive partnership signed in 2004.

In the U.S., Smith is still urging the House of Representatives to allow the bill to come to a vote - the act has seen little movement in Congress since its introduction. It remains to be seen if the European version will fare any differently.

Visit these links:
- Freedom House: http://www.freedomhouse.org
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27851
- European Global Online Freedom Act: http://tinyurl.com/6frtef
- "MEPs fight Internet censorship" on Jules Maaten website: http://www.julesmaaten.eu/nieuws.php?id=283
- RSF on U.S. Global Online Freedom Act: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/87181
(23 July 2008)

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