Do Internet companies need to be regulated to ensure they respect free expression?

Filed as News on January 8, 2006 11:41 pm

by Duncan

Reporters Without Borders’ thinks so. Their full media release follows:

The recent case of Microsoft closing down a journalist’s blog under pressure from the Chinese authorities once again shows that some Internet sector companies do not respect freedom of expression when operating in repressive countries. Reporters Without Borders proposes five concrete ways to make these companies behave ethically. These recommendations are addressed to the US government and US legislators because all the companies named in this document are based in the United States. Nonetheless, they concern all democratic countries and have therefore been sent to European Union officials and to the Secretary General of the OECD as well.

Background

Reporters Without Borders has repeatedly condemned the ethical lapses displayed by certain Internet sector companies when operating in repressive countries. Here are some examples that have caused us particular concern:

- Since 2002, Yahoo! has agreed to censor the results of the Chinese version of its search engine in accordance with a blacklist provide by the Chinese government. Reporters Without Borders also recently proved that Yahoo! helped the Chinese police identify and then convict a journalist who was criticising human rights abuses in China. The e-mail servers of Yahoo!’s Chinese division are located inside China.

- Microsoft censors the Chinese version of its MSN Spaces blog tool. You cannot enter search strings such as “democracy” or “human rights in China” or “capitalism” as they are automatically rejected by the system. Microsoft also closed down a Chinese journalist’s blog following pressure from the government in Beijing. This blog was hosted on servers located in the United States.

- All sources of news and information that are censored in China have been withdrawn by Google from the Chinese version of its news search engine, Google News.

- Secure Computing has sold Tunisia technology that allows it to censor independent news and information websites such as the Reporters Without Borders one.

- Fortinet has sold the same kind of software to Burma.

- Cisco Systems has marketed equipment specifically designed to make it easier for the Chinese police to carry out surveillance of electronic communications. Cisco is also suspected of giving Chinese engineers training in how to use its products to censor the Internet.

We believe these practices violate the right to freedom of expression as defined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was proclaimed by the United Nations when it was founded and which is supposed to apply to everyone, including business corporations. Furthermore, such ethical failings on the part of American companies damage the image of the Unites States abroad.

Our previous initiatives

Reporters Without Borders has written to the chief executives of several corporations since 2002 proposing an exchange of ideas on this issue. None of our letters have been answered. We have also tried to alert the shareholders of these companies through investment funds. We presented a joint statement on 7 November in New York in which 25 investment firms managing some 21 billion dollars in assets undertook to monitor the activities of Internet companies operating in repressive countries.

Aside from Google, all the companies we approached refused to enter into a dialogue on this subject. We would therefore now like the American people’s elected representatives and the Department of State to formally take up this issue.

The initiative

Reporters Without Borders is convinced that a law regulating the activities of Internet companies should only be drafted as a last resort, and we therefore recommend a two-step approach. Initially, a group of congressmen should formally ask Internet corporations to reach an agreement among themselves on a code of conduct that includes the recommendations we make at the end of this document. The companies would be urged to use the help of organisations specialised in freedom of expression in drafting the document. The request would include a deadline for the companies to submit their draft code of conduct to the congressmen concerned.

In the event that no satisfactory code of conduct has been drawn up when the deadline expires, or the proposed code has not been accepted by a sufficient number of representative companies, the congressmen would set about drafting a law that would aim to ensure that US companies respect freedom of expression when they are operating in repressive countries and elsewhere.

Reporters Without Borders’ proposals

We have listed our recommendations according to the type of service or equipment marketed by Internet companies:

- E-mail services:
No US company would be allowed to host e-mail servers within a repressive country*. So, if the authorities of a repressive country want personal information about the user of a US company’s e-mail service, they would have to request it under a procedure supervised by US.

- Search engines:
Search engines would not be allowed to incorporate automatic filters that censor “protected” words. The list of “protected” keywords such as “democracy” or “human rights” should be appended to the law or code of conduct.

- Content hosts (websites, blogs, discussion forums etc)
US companies would not be allowed to locate their host servers within repressive countries. If the authorities of a repressive country desire the closure of a publication hosted by a US company, they would have to request it under a procedure supervised by the US judicial authorities. Like search engines, content hosts would not be allowed to incorporate automatic filters that censor “protected” key-words.

- Internet censorship technologies
Reporters Without Borders proposes two options:

Option a: US companies would no longer be permitted to sell Internet censorship software to repressive states.

Option b: They would still be able to market this type of software but it will have to incorporate a list of “protected” keywords that are rendered technically impossible to censor.

- Internet surveillance technology and equipment
US companies would have to obtain the express permission of the Department of Commerce in order to sell to a repressive country any technology or equipment which can be used to intercept electronic communications or which is specifically designed to assist the authorities in monitoring Internet users.

- Training
US companies would have to obtain the express permission of the Department of Commerce before providing any programme of training in Internet surveillance and censorship techniques in a repressive country.

* A list of countries that repress freedom of expression would be drawn up on the basis of documents provided by the US State Department and would be appended to the code of conduct or law that is adopted. This list would be regularly updated.

Note: The purpose of these recommendations is to protect freedom of expression. They in no way aim to restrict the necessary cooperation between governments in their efforts to combat terrorism, paedophilia and cyber-crime.

Finisihes….

(Editors note: I’m a great supporter of RSF and have a long standing policy of publishing these releases in full to promote the cause).

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  1. By Joe posted on January 9, 2006 at 10:53 am
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    Hey Duncan,
    Thanks, I thought it important enough to mention, as you have a lot more exposure that I.
    If the Big guys can be pressured into this type of action in other countries, who’s to say it can’t happen here (or downunder).
    Joe

  2. By D. C. Russell posted on January 9, 2006 at 7:55 pm
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    I tend to oppose any kind of external regulation of the Internet.

    That being said, it seems to me that it would be appropriate for some user or group of users to maintain a clearinghouse and blog identifying instances of censorship like this, and naming names, not just of companies, but of the specific company officials or employees who make the actual censorship decisions.

    Companies and their employees who engage in censorship and aid authoritarian regimes should be outed and held accountable for their actions.

    The bigness and anonymity that they hide behind needs to be cleared away.

  3. By Darnell posted on January 9, 2006 at 9:26 pm
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    I agree with Russell. Regulating the internet sounds scary to me, and the less government does the better.

    Although governments of repressive regimes will continue to censor out the information super highway, citizens and other groups should take action, as they can do a more effective job at curbing these things by hitting them where it counts–in the wallet.

  4. By Mario posted on January 14, 2006 at 11:21 am
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    01-14-06
    Incensed by your article, I immediately opened another Google window and typed in “human rights in China”. I found several articles:
    http://www.hrichina.org/public/index
    http://hrw.org/doc/?t=asia&c=china
    http://www.christusrex.org/www1/sdc/hr_facts.html
    I the opned up Yahoo! and found the same one, 1st on the list above and:
    http://www.derechos.org/human-rights/nasia/china/
    http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/china/index.do
    Am I missing something or has Yahoo! recanted?