State Dept., Internet cos., human rights groups grapple with censorship

Google, Yahoo, Microsoft ask for government guidance on dealing with demands from repressive governments for censorship, Internet usage information.

Under fire from Congress and the American public, as well as by internal dissension from employees, over their compliance with censorship demands from China and other repressive regimes, the big Internet companies called on the US government to provide some guidance on how to respond to censorship demands, News.com reports.

Yahoo was roundly castigated by Reporters Without Borders, human rights groups and this publication for participating in the arrest of a Chinese reporter last year.

At a US State Dept conference, Yahoo's deputy general counsel Michael Samway pointed out that under US law, ISPs can't decide whether to obey or refuse a subpoena - and they shouldn't be asked to be moral gatekeepers when confronted with orders from foreign governments. "That's why we need the government's help," he said.

"It's not very simple when they just say, 'Here's the e-mail account, and we're investigating under the following 17 organized crime and terrorism statutes,'" said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel. "We can't just go...snooping through e-mail accounts to figure out whether we like what they've been engaged in."

Google's McLaughlin went so far as to suggest that the government "fight for our interests in the trade arena the same way they've been fighting for our interests in Detroit. Censorship should be treated as a trade barrier and be written into free-trade agreements."

While China is the top concern in censorship - since so many American companis are fighting for a piece of the massive opportunity that is the burgeoning Chinese economy - human rights groups emphasized that the problem is much bigger.

But the issue is "about a lot more than China, and it's important we treat it as such," said Dunstan Hope of the consulting group Business for Social Responsibility, which has been working with Yahoo, Google and Microsoft on how to operate in more restrictive countries.

In fact, about 25 countries around the world are currently engaged in Internet filtering, said Robert Faris, research director for an ongoing study of global Internet censorship techniques at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

The problem is exacerbated in part because "censorship" is a nuanced concept, from outright political imprisonment in some countries to investigations of hate crimes in others.

"Start with examples where there is an agreement that there is an egregious practice," such as China's notorious censorship of government critics, said Michael Posner, president of the advocacy group Human Rights First. "There are going to be situations where governments are engaged in mischief, and there has to be some way of evaluating that."

One proposal, introduced in a bill by Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, and supported by Amnesty International, is prohibit U.S. companies from turning over personal information about their subscribers to governments in those locales except for "legitimate law enforcement purposes." "We would urge U.S. corporations to use this law as a cover to say, 'We can't abide by what's being asked in different countries,'" Amnesty's T. Kumar said.

That general idea didn't sit well with Microsoft Associate General Counsel Ira Rubinstein. "The notion that just by enacting U.S. legislation, you're going to solve this problem, because now the companies will know what the standards are," he said, "is not really grappling with the legal complexity of the issue."

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