In the wake of troubling reports as recently as last year that Western companies were assisting China with Internet censorship and the unmasking of cyber-dissidents, governments around the world seemed poised to regulate the conduct of Internet companies. Lawmakers appear to have stepped back from those efforts, but the challenges of advancing global Internet freedom remain.
The Global Online Freedom Act, drafted in the U.S. Congress, would have made it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments in cases where that information could be used to punish dissent. The bill produced a firestorm of controversy. Human rights groups campaigned for swift passage, while the tech industry scrambled to stop the bill, which they viewed as a global eviction order from many difficult but emerging markets. At the same time, several members of the European Parliament proposed a European version of the measure, taking the accompanying controversy global.
Now policymakers seem far less certain that global Internet freedom will be served by imposing harsh mandates on Internet companies that provide crucial services to customers in repressive regimes. The bill has not been reintroduced in the U.S. Congress this year, and earlier this month, a top European regulator, European Union Telecommunications Commissioner Viviane Reding, dismissed the notion of Europe passing its own Global Internet Freedom Act, saying that she was not convinced that “hard law” was the best way to address the issue.
For Internet executives who feared that hard-line regulatory mandates might force them out of many countries, Reding’s comments came as welcome relief. But celebration is premature. Threats to Internet freedom are growing and lawmakers’ concerns about industry’s role remain rightly high. Those who choose to misconstrue Reding’s remarks as a free pass on this important issue do so at their peril.