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United States20 May 2008

US Senate Subcommittee looks at role of US companies in online censorship abroad

Reporters Without Borders welcomed a new opportunity to work with US lawmakers to look into the crucial issue of US companies’ collaboration with Web censors.

“We regret, however, that the companies singled out today, Cisco, Google and Yahoo!, didn’t take advantage of this hearing to announce concrete steps to improve the free flow of information online in Internet-restricted countries such as China” stated the international press freedom organization. “The same arguments were again heard, from statements of support for human rights to the belief their presence in those countries is having a positive effect. It can exist fairly only if these companies raise the bar higher than their local competitors regarding the flow of information and the respect of their users’ privacy. Their call for the government to intervene confirms the urgent need for the House to pass the Global Online Freedom Act, introduced by Representative Chris Smith (R - NJ), as well as a similar piece of legislation in the Senate.”

(JPEG)
"Virtual Web policemen" by China

Three US companies - Yahoo !, Google and Cisco - appeared today before a US Senate subcommittee hearing on “Global Internet Freedom”. They were questioned about their involvement in online censorship in repressive countries, either by allowing their software to filter news, modifying search results at the request of governments or threatening their users’ privacy rights. Organized by Senator Richard J. Durbin, the hearing was held by the senate judiciary committee’s subcommittee on human rights and the law. Representatives of Human Rights Watch and the Global gine” accessible in China. She explained Google has decided notto offer its gmail services within China for fear of being forced to compromise its users’ personal data. Ms Wong also pointed out that Google was the first to add a disclaimer notice on its search engine to warn its users that search results had been selected.

Cisco Systems, which helped build the Internet infrastructure in China in 1998, was accused of assisting the authorities in setting its equipment to enable online filtering and surveillance. On the basis of information supplied by journalist Ethan Gutman, the company is also accused of selling highly sophisticated communications systems to the Chinese police. Cisco was singled out at today’s hearing after the Subcommittee was provided with a Cisco Power Point presentation that discussed Chinese Internet monitoring, and identified "Cisco Opportunities" for marketing their products to the Chinese government. However, Mark Chandler, Cisco’s Senior Vice President, repeated “Cisco does not customize, or develop specialized or unique filtering capabilities, in order to enable different regimes to block access to information. Cisco has not and does not design products to accommodate political censorship. The tools built into our products that enable site filtering are the same world over, whether, sold to governments, companies or network operators.”

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Hu Jia

“The big Internet sector companies realize they cannot expose their clients to too many risks and therefore make an effort to be more transparent, but freedom of expression continues to be seriously threatened by their cooperation with the governments in repressive countries by blocking access to websites or content deemed to be ‘subversive’ although theselegal definitions are not always clear,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“We proposed various courses of action to the committee so that US companies should accept the full extent of the responsibility they bear in accessing and disseminating news and information in these countries,” the organisation added.

One of the Reporters Without Borders proposals called on US companies to stop locating servers in repressive countries so that they are no longer legally obliged to comply with requests by governments for information stored on those servers, and to help develop users’ empowerment tools to get around Internet censorship.

The organization stressed the urgent need to pass legislation protecting American IT companies from being forced by repressive government to take part in their dissidents’ hunt.

Reporters Without Borders released an updated list of the 13 “Internet Enemies” on 12 March.

Read our statement

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RSF’s statement


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