March 2nd, 2010
03:09 PM ET
13 years ago

U.S. Internet companies urged to protect Web's freedom of expression

Washington (CNN) - "If it were not for the Internet, God knows how many more people would have been killed on the streets of Tehran" after the 2009 Iranian elections, an Iranian blogger told a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

Omid Memarian, who said he was imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian regime for his pro-democracy Internet writings, was the star witness at a hearing in which U.S. technology companies were scolded for not taking a more active role in protecting freedom of expression on the Internet.

Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Delaware, accused U.S. corporations of "aiding and abetting" repressive regimes that restrict and censor the Internet, or use the Internet to track political opponents.

"A lot of it is being done with U.S. technology and U.S. companies, " Kaufman said.

The chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, accused the Internet community, with a few notable exceptions, of even being unwilling to engage in a dialogue with Congress on human rights challenges. He said representatives from the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, and the Apple and Hewlett-Packard companies all declined invitations to testify. McAfee, which produces filtering software, initially agreed but then withdrew.

Witnesses accused the governments of Iran, China, Turkey, Vietnam and other countries of blocking and filtering Internet content to restrict freedom of expression and political dissent. Nicole Wong, a vice president of Google, testified that the number of countries routinely censoring the Internet has grown from a handful in 2002 to more than 40 countries today. She said that repressive regimes are developing more advanced tools to use against dissidents.

After Google accused China of hacking into its systems and the Google e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents, the company made a high profile decision to no longer censor its Chinese search engine. Wong said the company does not have a timetable for making a decision on whether to pull out of China altogether.

Only a handful of technology companies have joined the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of Internet companies, human rights organizations, investors and institutions of higher learning, which has developed a voluntary code of conduct to protect human rights. Durbin said he will introduce legislation imposing civil or criminal penalties on companies that refuse to do so.

"Congress has a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating the freedom of expression, a fundamental human right that is enshrined in the first amendment of the Constitution," said Durbin.

Filed under: Homeland Security
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. The lonely Libertarian of Liverpool NY

    This is a joke right. Here in NYS Andrew Cuomo shutdown over one third of the internet when he made "newsgroups' illegal. The USA is the biggest censor of the internet in the world.
    Kettle met pot....

    March 2, 2010 04:10 pm at 4:10 pm |
  2. Jen

    While I do agree that freedom of expression is a "fundamental human right enshrined in the first amendment f the Constitution", I further agree the Constitution is an American document, intended to protect the rights of Americans. I do not believe; however, our Constitution can be considered appropriate to apply globally, as the idea is not democratic, but demagogic. That being said, I am concerned about global human rights being protected, such as the examples in Tehran, China, et al. There should be a line between ensuring the protection of people, and imposing our countries views on others. We must be careful of imposing a new kind of imperialism on other countries. If a country does not want a particular type of information to get through, such as liquor companies websites in a Muslim country, I don't see an issue with that type of censorship, as it is a reflection of their countries values. If it is an issue of the restriction of information to conceal human rights violations, or spy on their own people for purposes of persecution that is an entirely different matter. That being said we need to look at our own countries policies, before we attempt to impose our ideals, whether real or practiced, on others.

    March 2, 2010 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  3. buckwheat

    There is a time when ones freedom of expression should be in the toilet and that is when it steps on ones right to expect decency on our air ways that the kids see or the people who grew up being taught right from wrong see. I know.There is a button to shut it off.

    March 2, 2010 04:18 pm at 4:18 pm |

    We also wouldn't know what freaks the Tea-Baggers are, or what hypocrits the GOP are..

    March 2, 2010 04:30 pm at 4:30 pm |
  5. El Gordo

    We cannot depend on the high moral standards or patriotism of our corporate leadership. They will do anything that makes money, and if the won't, their boards will fire them and hire someone who will. Corporations love doing business with repressive regimes because (1) they only have to bribe one person and (2) they don't have to worry about a lot of regulations (child labor laws, anti-slavery laws, discrimination against women laws, paying benefits, etc.).

    We could pass a law saying that if a corporation provides filtering, censorship, or the outing of dissidents then they may not do business in the United States.

    March 2, 2010 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  6. Rob

    Hmm...let's see which side wins out: freedom of expression or the almighty dollar. There'$ a rea$on why many of tho$e tech companie$ declined to te$tify.

    March 2, 2010 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  7. Mark L.

    As a full-time salaried employee in the Information Technology field, allow me to say the Internet has been the absolutely GREATEST technological advance since the invention of the first computer. I, personally, cannot envision life without the Internet today. My Dell laptop PC & ISP connectivity today is equivalent to what the Radio / TV was for me back in the glory days of the 1960's / 1970's...{:o)

    March 2, 2010 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
  8. Jeff Spangler, Arlington, VA

    The vaunted freedom of expression we experience in America has its territorial limits. We cannot guarantee it to every self-styled hero in every Muslim or other delusional hellhole on Earth.

    March 2, 2010 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  9. Daryn Guarino

    It's not up to Google to spread or protect democracy, they are not our army, nor does Google speak for America. We used to have public servants to protect democracy, but they were purchased long ago and now only exist as leeches, sucking the life from America.

    March 2, 2010 05:04 pm at 5:04 pm |
  10. Nosey Canadians should mind their own business

    Coming to your area soon, if the republicans can get away with it.The corporate fascists dont like being found out.

    March 2, 2010 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  11. Ryan

    Without freedom on the internet – we can't leave comments like these (they're already monitored!)

    And we basically become China.

    March 2, 2010 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  12. AndyBlue

    McCain wanted the entire internet to be consored.

    and old Songbird doesnt even know what the internet is.

    March 2, 2010 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  13. Victim of GOP Taliban

    Makes sense. Iran is suppose to be on a sanction list and I thought not allowed to use U.S. technology. We should use our technology to prevent Iran from exploiting it.

    March 2, 2010 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  14. Richie in Mass

    I love how comments mention Republicans would be the ones to censor us. The Democrats and a large portion of it's liberal supporters are for free speech unless it's Republicans. Think the "Fairness Doctorine" . They think companies must be regulated to force content which loses them money. NPR is subsidized and well, Air America was a joke. Then again the liberals trick is to call it "hate speech", then it's ok to censor or ban. When liberals get called on what someone else calls "hate speech" they cry 1st ammendment. Liberals also complain that Bush tried forced freedom and democracy in other countries yet when it suits them its ok? Canada blocks websites that broadcast most US televison shows. Any crying for their civil rights?

    March 2, 2010 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |