But lawmakers want companies to take the lead against online censorship.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

March 3, 2010

5 Min Read

Faced with technology companies that appear to be unwilling to stand up for human rights, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin on Tuesday said he plans to introduce legislation to force companies "to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability."

Durbin was speaking at the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, which he chairs, on Tuesday. The hearing was attended by representatives of the State Department and the Commerce Department, Princeton University technology policy fellow Rebecca MacKinnon, Iranian blogger Omid Memarian, and Google VP and deputy general counsel Nicole Wong.

Other companies that were invited declined to attend.

The purpose of the hearing was to discuss global Internet freedom, a cause that appears to have gained some support in the U.S. government since Google declared in January that a cyber attack from China had prompted it to re-evaluate its business in the country.

"One of the most pressing challenges posed by the Internet is the censorship of online information," said Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, also present at the hearing. "For some time now, we have witnessed the troubling efforts of repressive regimes -- such as the governments of China, Iran and North Korea -- to censor, or in some cases eliminate, their citizens' access to information via the Internet. Most Americans are by now very familiar with the troubling reports that the government of China has hacked into the private e-mail accounts of human rights activists. We must address these serious challenges to freedom of expression head-on."

Google is doing that, or at least talking about it. Wong reiterated that Google is "no longer willing to censor our search results in China" and that the company is still reviewing its options.

Yet Durbin showed that Google's willingness to cease censoring search results in China has not translated into action. Google's Chinese Web site, google.cn, he said, still returns censored search results for queries related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, as it did at a similar hearing two years ago.

And he said that Google was not alone in this practice, noting that Microsoft's Bing, Yahoo, and Chinese search engine Baidu also censor search results. In fact, he commended Google for its intention to stop censoring in China and said he looked forward to an update on Google's plans.

Wong, however, provided no new information about the attacks that Google disclosed in January or about Google's future in China. She did say that Google was not ready to identify those responsible for the attack. "I want to stress that while we know these attacks came from China, we are not prepared to say who is carrying out these attacks," she said in prepared remarks. "We do know such attacks are violations of China's own laws and we would hope that the Chinese authorities will work with US officials to investigate this matter."

The New York Times last month reported that the attacks had been traced to Shanghai Jiaotong University and Lanxiang Vocational School, a charge that representatives of both schools have denied.

Wong also urged U.S. and foreign governments to implement rules to address information economy trade barriers, echoing a similar call to treat censorship as a trade barrier in 2006. "We encourage further efforts along these lines, by the U.S. government and other governments to redress favoritism show by some governments for indigenous companies over U.S.-based corporations," she said. "We should continue to look for effective ways to address unfair foreign trade barriers in the online world: to use trade agreements, trade tools, and trade diplomacy to promote the free flow of information on the Internet."

Durbin praised Google, Microsoft and Yahoo for helping to launch the Global Network Initiative two years ago. The GNI is a set of voluntary guidelines that requires technology companies to take steps to protect human rights.

Durbin also expressed disappointment that no new companies have joined GNI in the past year and a half.

"Many companies told me the GNI is not relevant to their company's business," he said. "The last two years have shown that simply is not true. The explosive growth of social networking services, like Twitter and Facebook, has helped human rights activists organize and publicize human rights violations in Iran and elsewhere. However, repressive governments can use these same tools to monitor and crack down on advocates."

Durbin said that he had invited Facebook and Twitter to testify and that they refused. He also noted that in light of China's effort last summer to force PC makers to install Green Dam Web filtering software, he asked HP and Apple to testify and that they too refused. He said that he had invited McAfee, which makes filtering software, to testify, and that company representatives backed out at the last minute.

"The bottom line is this: with a few notable exceptions, the technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces," he said.

MacKinnon urges companies, individuals, and governments to stand up and defend Internet freedom.

"The inconvenient truth is that authoritarianism is adapting to the Internet age," she said. "Google's recent public challenge to the Chinese government's cyber-attacks and censorship took place in this broader context. In my view it shows a recognition that the status quo -- in terms of authoritarian censorship, regulation, and manipulation of the Internet -- will not necessarily improve any time soon, and could continue get worse unless a broader range of companies, citizens, and governments, realize what's happening and take responsibility for the future of freedom in the Internet age."

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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