A U.S. senator plans to introduce legislation that would impose criminal or civil penalties on U.S. Internet companies that bow to pressure of foreign governments and violate human rights.
Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, gave few details about the proposed bill during a hearing of the Judiciary Committee's Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee Tuesday, but he said the legislation would seek to impose penalties on U.S. companies that violate the human rights of bloggers, activists and other Internet users living in repressive nations.
U.S. companies are too often bowing to pressure from other governments to censor Internet content or help track down human rights activists, said Durbin, the subcommittee chairman. Durbin asked several U.S. tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, McAfee and Apple, to testify at Tuesday's hearing on global Internet freedom, but they declined, he said.
"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 that the industry faces," Durbin said. "In the face of this resistance, I have decided it's time to take a more active position."
The proposed legislation would require Internet companies to take "reasonable steps" to protect human rights, Durbin said. "I recognize that the technology industry faces difficult challenges when they deal with repressive governments," he added. "But we have a responsibility in the United States, and Congress shares in that responsibility, to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating freedom of expression."
Durbin also complained that most Internet companies have so far not joined the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a group launched in October 2008 to help protect freedom of expression and privacy online. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are the only Internet firm participants in GNI.
Durbin targeted Facebook for some of his criticism. Facebook told Durbin that it takes down some content when it violates local laws, he said.
When he asked Facebook why it was not part of GNI, the company said it didn't have the resources to participate in the group and it didn't have operations in China, one of the nations most identified with censorship, he said. But GNI dues are a maximum of US$60,000, Durbin said.
About 70 percent of Facebook's users are outside the U.S. The company, and others like it, could benefit from the dialog at GNI, said Michael Posner, assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor at the U.S. Department of State. Companies need to work collectively to combat censorship and human rights abuses, Posner said.
Durbin noted that Facebook had asked for the State Department's help when it was blocked in Vietnam. "If Facebook expects our government to help resolving efforts to censor its service, it only seems reasonable that they accept some responsibility themselves for addressing human rights issues," Durbin said.
Facebook's global operations are small, but as the company grows, it will consider whether to participate in new groups, said Andrew Noyes, spokesman for the company in Washington, D.C.
"When we come to evaluate doing business in any country, we do so thoughtfully and are mindful of the rules, regulations and customs," he added. "We welcome a continued dialogue with Senator Durbin and others who have an interest in this issue."
Durbin asked Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy and co-founder of international blogger network Global Voices Online, why more Internet companies don't join GNI. "It does seem, in part, a fear of acknowledging that human rights is part of their business," she said. "I think a lot of companies are afraid of even having that conversation for fear that people will then hang charges on them ... and they'd rather avoid having the conversation at all."
Witnesses and other senators at the hearing didn't question Durbin's proposed legislation. New legislation may be needed to "induce corporate responsibility," MacKinnon said.
The U.S. government should also fix export controls and allow Internet companies to serve residents in repressive countries, she added. But the U.S. government should block U.S. companies from selling filtering software or surveillance equipment to those same nations, she said.
The only Internet company represented at the hearing was Google, and Nicole Wong, the company's vice president and deputy general counsel, focused on efforts Google is taking to stop censoring search results in China.
Google doesn't have a timetable for making the change but it is committed to doing so, Wong said. Other companies may make different decisions about doing business in China and other countries, and Google's decision on China was a difficult one, she said.
Durbin and other senators didn't talk about whether U.S. government surveillance of residents would count as human rights violations. The U.S. National Security Agency conducted surveillance on U.S. residents without court-ordered warrants for several years in the past decade, with the help of U.S. service providers. Litigation involved in these incidents is ongoing.