By Ed Royce

In The Orange County Register:


Soheil Arabi will soon have a rope around his neck. The 30-year-old father is languishing on Iran’s death row. Yet Mr. Arabi did not kill anyone. He did not rape or steal. The “crime” Mr. Arabi committed was writing several Facebook posts that were deemed religiously offensive.

Mr. Arabi’s abhorrent treatment throws harsh light upon one of the defining struggles of his generation. The Internet is the newest arena for one of our oldest fights – the right to free speech. The world’s freedoms are increasingly being given – and denied – online. It is a fight the Obama administration has not fought strongly enough.

While Internet usage has climbed to more than 40 percent of the world’s population, global Internet freedom has declined for the fourth year in a row, according to Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net 2014 report. Online censorship and monitoring is becoming more aggressive and sophisticated around the globe.

In Russia, Putin’s government has gone on the offensive, using the Internet as a weapon against democracy. It has been widely reported that Russia is financing hundreds of “trolls” – fake online personalities who attack social media sites with misleading and false information. While the space for free speech in Russia is shrinking, the number of state-owned “news” websites is proliferating. The Kremlin uses these websites to create confusion and discredit authors, leaving readers wondering what is true and what is false.

China’s “Great Firewall” employs thousands of people to scan the Internet, searching for information for that repressive government to block. China also uses technical methods like bandwidth throttling and keyword filtering to censor the Internet. Online libraries, text messaging applications and cloud computing services are also shut off. Right now, China is blocking information on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Sadly, even our allies in Europe are threatening Internet freedom. Europe’s highest court issued a ruling last year allowing individuals to request that Google remove search results about themselves. Under this “right to be forgotten,” Google has removed roughly 500,000 links. Those removed links include articles about criminal convictions, investigations and botched medical procedures. A European Union group of privacy regulators is now calling on Google to expand its censorship to global sites. This offers a bleak glimpse into Internet freedom in Europe.

Internet freedom is not just an American value; it is a global value. People around the world are fighting for this freedom. In Cuba, where the Castro government restricts Internet access, people resort to downloading articles to thumb drives and sharing them with each other. In Turkey, when the government earlier this year banned YouTube and Twitter, Internet freedom advocates used outdoor graffiti to instruct people how to use virtual personal networks to circumvent government controls.

We must not let oppressive governments win – we must ensure the continuity of the global Internet. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, which I chair, is fully engaged on this issue. We have held hearings on Internet freedom, championed passage of an Internet freedom resolution and pressed individual countries behind the scenes to stop Internet blocking.

I am concerned that the Obama administration has not prioritized the fight for Internet freedom and Internet governance. I plan to continue pressing the administration to develop a clear strategic plan to reverse the troubling decline in Internet freedom. U.S. efforts through the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development should address the proliferation of repressive laws, reverse regulatory controls of online media and push back on increased demands on the private sector to self-censor.

We are still in the early days of the Internet. It’s us up to all of us to ensure that the Internet remains free and open so that future generations may enjoy its social and economic benefits. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989, conceived of it as a network of freedom. Let’s not allow repressive regimes to use it as a web of oppression.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.


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