Internet Industry Told to Respect Human Rights Abroad

Senator Durbin promises legislation that would force companies to protect human rights.

Yesterday a leading member of Congress put pressure on Internet companies to support human rights and Internet freedom abroad. U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, the Democratic representative from Illinois and the Senate majority whip, said he plans to introduce legislation “that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability.” An aide later said the proposed legislation had not been written, but would likely be based on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Internet rights: Dick Durbin and Nicole Wong, vice president and deputy general counsel of Google, at a hearing of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.

The chances of such a bill passing, or being enforceable if it does, are far from clear. But the issue it would address is pervasive. Right now, many U.S. Internet companies that do business in China, and other countries with government-enforced censorship, actively filter content to comport with local customs or laws. Filtered content includes results on search engines, social networking groups on sites like Facebook, and book listings on retailing sites like Amazon. Google’s recent announcement that it would stop censoring search results in China (in the wake of cyber attacks against the company) was a major break from this standard business practice.

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At a hearing of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, which Durbin chairs, he said: “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.” Durbin invited 30 Internet companies to testify, but only Google did so. Those who took a pass included Facebook, Twitter, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and McAfee.

Durbin added: “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.”

At the hearing, a Google executive said the company was still working through exactly how to fulfill its anti-censorship pledge. “We will not censor our search results in China and we are working toward that end,” Nicole Wong, Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel, testified in response to a question. “We have many employees on the ground. We recognize both the seriousness and the sensitivity of the decision we are making, and we want to make a way to stop censorship of our search results that is appropriate and responsible.”

Three major companies, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, have joined with an industry-academic coalition called the Global Network Initiative, which was formed three years ago to “collaborate in the advancement of user rights to freedom of expression and privacy” through information technology. Durbin and others have been encouraging other companies to join, but most have begged off, with some saying they don’t have the resources to contribute to the effort, and others saying that they are pursuing similar goals on their own.

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