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CRS — Promoting Global Internet Freedom: Policy and Technology

October 28, 2013

Promoting Global Internet Freedom: Policy and Technology (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

Modern communication tools such as the Internet provide a relatively inexpensive, accessible, easy-entry means of sharing ideas, information, and pictures around the world. In a political and human rights context, in closed societies when the more established, formal news media is denied access to or does not report on specified news events, the Internet has become an alternative source of media, and sometimes a means to organize politically.

The openness and the freedom of expression allowed through social networking sites, as well as the blogs, video sharing sites, and other tools of today’s communications technology, have proven to be an unprecedented and often disruptive force in some closed societies. Governments that seek to maintain their authority and control the ideas and information their citizens receive are often caught in a dilemma: they feel that they need access to the Internet to participate in commerce in the global market and for economic growth and technological development, but fear that allowing open access to the Internet potentially weakens their control over their citizens.

Internet freedom can be promoted in two ways, through legislation that mandates or prohibits certain activities, or through industry self-regulation. Current legislation under consideration by Congress, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2011 (H.R. 3605), would prohibit or require reporting of the sale of Internet technologies and provision of Internet services to “Internetrestricting countries” (as determined by the State Department). Some believe, however, that technology can offer a complementary and, in some cases, better and more easily implemented solution to ensuring Internet freedom. They argue that hardware and Internet services, in and of themselves, are neutral elements of the Internet; it is how they are implemented by various countries that is repressive. Also, Internet services are often tailored for deployment to specific countries; however, such tailoring is done to bring the company in line with the laws of that country, not with the intention of allowing the country to repress and censor its citizenry. In many cases, that tailoring would not raise many questions about free speech and political repression.

This report provides information about federal and private sector efforts to promote and support global Internet freedom and a description of Internet freedom legislation and hearings from the 113th and 112th Congresses. Three appendixes suggest further reading on this topic and describe censorship and circumvention technologies.

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