House Bill Proposes FCC Regulation of Internet Search Providers

February 16, 2010. Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced HR 4504 [LOC | WW], the "Standards for Internet Non-Censorship Act of 2010", on January 26, 2010.

It has been over one month since Google announced that following cyber attacks on its systems, and the systems of other companies, by the People's Republic of China (PRC), for the purpose of surveilling "human rights activists", it is "no longer willing to continue censoring" search results in the PRC, and that it may "shut down".

See, Google's January 12, 2010, statement, and story titled "Google Accuses Red China of Cyber Attacks Directed at Human Rights Activists" in TLJ Daily E-Mail Alert No. 2,036, January 19, 2010.

See also, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech of January 21, 2010, in which she stated that "Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They've expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-violent political speech."

In the ensuing month there has not been a rush to file bills that propose legislative solutions to protect global internet freedom. (Neither Google nor Clinton proposed legislative or regulatory solutions.)

However, Rep. Foster has introduced a bill that grasps at several possible approaches. He proposes to delegate legislative authority to the President -- to write standards for internet search providers. He proposes that the "free" nations of the world write international standards. Finally, he proposes that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) write rules regulating internet search.

HR 4504 was referred to the House Commerce Committee (HCC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC). Rep. Foster is a member of neither. He is a physicist who was elected to the House in 2008. His bill is inexpertly drafted. The language of the bill lends the appearance that Rep. Foster did not avail himself of drafting advice from the Office of Legislative Counsel.

This bill states that it is the sense of the Congress that both the President of the U.S. and a "coalition of free countries" should set internet search standards.

First, the bill urges the President "establish interim minimum standards of non-censorship for Internet search providers and create programs to restrict access to domestic online information by search providers determined to be censoring nonviolent political speech".

Second, this bill urges that free countries should act in concert "to adopt minimum standards for non-censorship of nonviolent political speech as a condition for access to the Internet".

Third, the bill provides that the FCC "may" adopt regulations that "restrict repressive Internet search providers from accessing domestic online information". The bill further provides that the FCC may prevent "any other person or entity from colluding to evade such regulations".

The bill defines "domestic online information" as "Web sites, databases, and other digital information that is housed or hosted on computers located in the United States or any territory or possession of the United States". Taken literally, this would preclude offending search providers in the U.S. from spidering web sites to create the indices upon their search services are based.

The bill defines "repressive Internet search provider" as "an Internet search provider that censors search results for the purpose of suppressing nonviolent political speech".

Rep. David Wu (D-OR) and Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) are cosponsors of this bill.

On February 4, 2010, Rep. Wu introduced a more focused and less ambitious bill that addresses internet freedom. He and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced HR 4595 [LOC | WW], the "Internet Freedom Act of 2010".

HR 4595 would create a body at the National Science Foundation (NSF) titled "Internet Freedom Foundation", and authorize the appropriation of funding. The purpose of this body would be to "promote Internet freedom through education, advocacy, and research". This bill was referred to the House Science Committee.

On Wednesday, February 24, 2010, at 10:00 AM, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) will host a news conference to discuss "the global challenges to Internet freedom". The CDT will also teleconference this event.