WASHINGTON – The U.S. government wants to ensure that people living under the world's most repressive regimes have unfettered access to the Internet.
Reps. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., and Tom Lantos, D-Calif., have joined Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and John Kyl, R-Ariz., to introduce legislation that would create an Office of Global Internet Freedom to help people in countries like China and Saudi Arabia circumvent tight restrictions on their Internet access.
"The development and implementation of technologies to defeat the Internet jamming and censorship are a logical next step in the struggle to defend human rights abroad," Lantos said when the legislation was introduced earlier this month.
The new office, which would be funded with anywhere from $30 million to $50 million in taxpayer dollars, would help deploy existing software to Internet companies so that they can work around jamming technology and firewalls employed by governments to restrict access, said officials.
The legislation is garnering tentative support from human rights observers and Internet privacy watchdogs, who say they back it as long as the United States does not engage in its own "filtering" of the Internet for use as a propaganda machine, a strategy that officials flatly deny wanting to employ.
"It would seem silly to have an office that wants to keep the Internet open engaging in filtering," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a Washington, D.C., Internet privacy watchdog.
Cox, who said a new government media office would be a natural outgrowth of the work the United States has done to promote news and information over the airwaves with Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, insists that unlike those media, the American government won’t have a hand in the content international users receive.
"The beauty of the Internet is that we can get out of the business of content providing," Cox told Foxnews.com.
However, Cox did not deny that the government may utilize existing anti-pornography filters to ensure that U.S. taxpayers aren’t paying for foreign users to access titillating sex Web sites.
"There is no reason in the world that we will be promoting access to anything but news and information on the Internet," he said.
But privacy experts warned against such filtering.
"To what extent will we allow other nations to impose cultural mores?" asked Hoofnagle.
Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, which calls the proposal "right on target," also warned against the government engaging in filtering, even if just for porn.
"This government should not be making decisions about what gets filtered and what doesn’t," he said. "We should be giving the tools to make their own choices as to what is coming into their homes."
Supporters say that the United States has an obligation to help promote democracy and freedom of speech across the globe, which is what opening the Internet can do naturally.
Groups like Human Rights Watch have been chronicling government restrictions across the globe, concentrating mostly on China, which has shut down access to particular Web sites and search engines deemed "subversive" to the communist government.
According to Human Rights Watch, China has reportedly been jailing and torturing Web masters and site designers for years.
"The U.S. needs to undertake such initiatives," said Dinah PoKempner, general counsel for Human Rights Watch in New York, which has done extensive work in documenting Internet restrictions and government crackdowns on online dissidents.
"It’s addressing a very important problem worldwide," she said.
Chinese Embassy officials did not return a request for comment.
Other countries on the radar screen for bypass technology are Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Cuba, Laos, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Some block access altogether. Others employ technology that both filters and monitors what kind of content citizens can access.
The U.S. government has already embarked on a pilot program that allows Chinese Internet users to access remote servers across the globe and encrypt their Web travels, completely bypassing the Chinese filters and trackers. This will be the template from which the new Office of Global Internet Security will operate, officials said.
According to Stephen Hsu, chairman of Safe Web, the company deploying the technology for the new office, the pilot launched earlier this year attracted about 100,000 hits a day from Chinese users.
"It’s pretty clear there’s a demand for this and that the technology can work," Hsu said. "Now it’s a matter of getting the funding in place and starting the program."
Schwartz said he is encouraged that the government is coming up with policy ideas that open access, rather than concentrating exclusively on post-Sept. 11 security measures that seem to restrict freedoms.
Spurred by cyber-terrorism concerns, expanded Internet surveillance powers in the United States combined with new laws designed to track e-mail and Web traffic in Europe have served to restrict freedoms rather than open them, he said.
"That’s why you see a wide range of support for this idea," said Schwartz. "The question is, how do we best promote the joint goals of security and openness -- that’s difficult to do. It has not been the overall goal of the Bush administration in this area."
Meanwhile, officials say they hope to see a vote on the legislation either by the end of this year or early in the next Congress, which convenes in January.