In 2008, the Global Network Initiative was created with the goal of advancing freedom and protecting privacy of individuals who use the Internet for political and commercial use. The start up of the organization was encouraged by the U.S. government and supported by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Human Rights and the Law.
Founding members included Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and prominent academia and legal scholars focused on International political and legal issues.
Throughout 2009, internet applications were used for political purposes in Iran, China, Venezuela and other countries. Authoritarian governments have had significant challenges defeating the use of tools that help expose civil unrest and dissatisfaction among the population in those countries. Several examples:
It was a very busy year determining how Internet companies should protect themselves. The GNI's founders asked more companies to join the initiative. Among them Facebook and Twitter, both declining because of the fees associated with joining GNI and the belief that they had no interests in GNI's purpose. Its founding members have not been augmented with new members since its inception.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Human Rights and the Law held its second session, asking several organizations to testify: Google's VP & deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, Daniel J. Weitzner of the United States Department of Commerce, Omid Memarian, Iranian Journalist and blogger and Rebecca McKinnon, Co-Founder, Global Voices Online.
Asked to testify were Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Hewlett Packard and McAfee, all refused.
In a damning rebuke in his opening statement, Judiciary Chair Senator Richard J. Durbin called the companies that did not participate;
The bottom line is this: with a few notable exceptions, the technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces.
In the face of this resistance, I have decided that it is time to take a more active role. At our hearing two years ago, I indicated that Congress could step in if the industry failed to take concrete action to protect internet freedom.
Today I am announcing that I will introduce legislation that would require internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability. I look forward to working with Senator Coburn and my other colleagues to enact this legislation into law.
All of the companies that refused to testify have interests in China. Twitter and Facebook have users in China, Iran and Venezuela.
Nicole Wong reaffirmed Google's announced position of no longer censoring content on its search engine in response to questions by the Committee. In Wong's written submission, the company continues to walk a fine line of not directly attributing the attack against Google in December.
I want to stress that while we know these attacks came from China, we are not prepared to say who is carrying out these attacks. We do know such attacks are violations of China's own laws and we would hope that the Chinese authorities will work with US officials to investigate this matter.
Because this is an ongoing investigation, I am not prepared to say anymore about these attacks. However, before moving on to the broader, global challenges we face, I would like to stress t the decision to review our business operations in China was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China who have worked with dedication and determination to make Google.cn the success it is today.
Google's testimony carefully illustrates the problems of operating in China. It does not want to leave the biggest growth opportunity, nor does it want to jeopardize or put in danger its employees in China.
Google is now the second most popular search engine in China, behind Baidu, and we were the first search engine in China to let users know when the results have been removed to comply with Chinese law. Use of our map, mobile and translation services is growing quickly. And from a business perspective, while our China revenues are still small in the context of our larger business, the last quarter of 2009 was our most successful quarter ever in China.
Don't be evil
Google willingness to testify and offer suggestions on how freedom of expression and privacy need further U.S. government support illustrates how to move forward under difficult political administrations that exist around the world. Why Facebook, Twitter, HP and others refuse to have a dialogue with their government is almost baffling and could have significant repercussions with its users.
As was illustrated in hearing testimony other nations also block content from various sources such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar. Websites like YouTube, the Guardian, and Facebook are completely blocked.
Apple wants protection from companies like HTC and Nokia and help from the U.S. administration (USITC) in doing so, yet will not codify or be a part of the solutions for basic human rights like freedom of expression - solutions that may hurt their brand. It makes it appear Apple is more concerned with access to manufacturing and market access with China while protecting itself from imports from competitors that also are linked to China than principles outlined by the GNI.
You'll need to jump to 17:02 of the video before the session begins.
U.S. removes Internet sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan
Secretary of State Clinton's speech on Internet Freedom
EPIC's letter to Secretary of State Clinton on Internet Privacy