Why Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! need to be reined in

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Reporters without Borders (RWB) today issued its “Enemies of the Internet” report, exposing state censorship of free speech and expression around the world. Topping the group’s list were Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

While the United States is not on the list, RWB and Amnesty International earlier in the week highlighted the role of U.S. companies in internet censorship by calling on Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals, even if just for a day, on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship (today March 12th).

The call on the companies is a reminder that censorship does not just happen by states acting alone. The very companies that provide access to information on-line are actively participating in the restriction of such access.

So, what happens when U.S. companies adopt the censorship practices of other countries rather than export the ideals of free speech that are largely granted to users in their homeland?

There is a clear need for regulation. While the industry has begun attempts at self-regulation, they have made far too little progress in far too much time. Rep. Chris Smith has been vigilant in trying to pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would bring about transparency in state requests of U.S. firms to censor protected speech, and help the companies to refuse such requests, with the backing of the U.S. government.

To date, the companies have opposed the bill’s chances of becoming law.

If RWB and Amnesty’s call for one day of freedom from online censorship goes unheeded by the companies, it in itself will speak volumes — how can we expect them to make meaningful strides in their ongoing operations if they can’t even commit to a one-day, mostly a symbolic gesture?

If the U.S. doesn’t want to find itself on the “enemies” list one day, it needs to step in and regulate companies based in its soil that are essentially partners in the crackdown on free expression occurring across the world.

Internet Co's: How about one day without censorship?

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) yesterday called on U.S. Internet companies Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to give the world a day of censorship-free Internet search and blogging, in recognition of World Day Against Cyber Censorship, March 12.

In other words, we’re seeing if Internet companies are willing to give the world a free trial of freedom of expression. 

Like free trials of software downloads, the hope is that if these Internet mammoths can find it within themselves to stand up to censorship requests for just one day, they, we, the world, might like it enough to buy into the full version.

RWB and AI participated for months in an initiative, now known as the Global Network Initiative (GNI), with the companies to try to develop voluntary standards for the Internet and telecommunications industry on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. 

Both groups, to date, have refused to endorse the GNI, pointing to loopholes that could allow for continued abuses of privacy and free expression rights, such as what occurred with Chinese journalist Shi Tao. (Yahoo! handed over account information to Chinese authorities who used it to sentence Shi to a 10 year prison term for sending an email to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website.) 

If any of the companies take up the RWB-AIUSA challenge, much could be discovered about the true nature of the online censorship beast. The power of the symbolism, let alone bringing transparency to the problem could be just enough to change the lives of millions. It would be a sad state if none of the three can find a way to respect freedom of expression for one day.

China's e-blockade a blow to human rights victims of the world

It’s not surprising that with the Olympics come and gone, reports are surfacing of China’s cracking down of the Internet, again, and with the help, of course, of Chinese and US companies, including Microsoft and Google.

Unfortunately, Amnesty’s website is again one of the victims.

But when widespread censorship occurs, the “victims” are even more widespread — it’s much more than the author of a site or the person who can’t access it which is harmed. According to media reports, Chinese authorities have clamped down on child pornography and vulgur content. (And, who wants to argue the pro-child pornography point?) But, such categories are also said to include “content depicting violence and depravity”.

Content depicting violence and depravity? Iraq? Gaza? Darfur? All off limits? It’s unfair enough to deprive Chinese nationals of access to the world, but what about those suffering egregious abuses around the world, whose only hope could depend on the awareness and actions of others (citizens of the world/human rights activists/humanists) outside of their borders? What right does any state have to take away not only from its own people, but from people far beyond its jurisdiction? And, how can companies that enable this taking sleep at night?

Australia to join Internet Censors? U.S. Companies Can't Be Allowed to Help.

The New York Times reported yesterday that “[t]he Australian government plans to test a nationwide Web filtering system that would force Internet service providers to block access to thousands of sites containing questionable or illegal content, prompting cries of censorship from advocacy groups.”


Not surprisingly, according to the article, Australia is using the same tried-and-true justification of needing to protect itself (and its citizens) from terrorism and child pornography.


It’s not to say that child pornography and terrorism aren’t legitimate concerns. It’s just that these are the same, all-too-often abused excuses used to cast a much wider net that unjustifiably censors peaceful expression.


So, it’s understandable that people would fear that Australia may be joining the ranks of more infamous censoring regimes, like China, that routinely limit access to information and restrict freedom of expression.


The implications for U.S. companies that provide internet services in Australia are clear: just as in other parts of the world, they will likely again be asked to comply with requests that violate human rights standards relating to freedom of expression and privacy.


A role for the U.S. government is also clear: congress must act to reinvigorate and pass the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA), previously introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). GOFA, in its previous form, would allow the U.S. government to step in and stop U.S. companies from complying with requests that violate international human rights standards.