WASHINGTON - Imagine not being able to get on the Internet for fear of being jailed.
That's a reality in many countries, where leaders use the Web as a weapon against citizens. But two American lawmakers are fighting back.
New Jersey Republican Rep. Chris Smith and Oregon Democrat Rep. David Wu co-chair the the Global Internet Freedom Caucus. Together they've introduced legislation that:
- Requires the State Department to name and shame countries with oppressive online practices
- Prohibits U.S. Internet companies from storing personal identification information inside oppressive countries.
- Requires companies to report requests for personal information to the State Department.
The U.S. witnessed the lack of Internet freedom first hand last summer after the controversial elections in Iran. A massive government crack down on Internet communications was issued.
It's a problem with oppressive regimes across the globe and American IT companies doing business inside their borders are forced to comply.
That means U.S. Internet companies are aiding in the censoring and surveillance of certain information. In some cases, they're disclosing personal information about citizens that sometimes lands them in jail.
"Currently in the world, 120 netisons, Internet users, bloggers are jailed because of what they wrote online -- 72 of them are in China," said Clothilde Le Coz of Reporters Without Borders.
Of those cases, the group says Internet mammoth Yahoo was involved in four of them.
"Every time a repressive regime cracks down, Internet censoring, blocking and surveillance is one of the most powerful weapons in its arsenal," Rep. Smith said.
Supporters of the Global Online Freedom Bill have been trying to get them through Congress for four years now, but this year they have a powerful new ally. This month, Internet giant Google sent a letter announcing support for the legislation.
"We must harness the power of the Internet to open closed societies, to more effectively empower people of courage to challenge the authority of authoritarian regimes under which they live, instead of the reverse," Rep. Wu said.
Reps. Wu and Smith are hopeful Congress will pass the legislation this year.