Senate Hearing on Global Internet Freedom: CDT Report

The U.S. Senate held a hearing on ‘Global Internet Freedom and the Rule of Law, Part II‘ last week. Wary corporate invitees stayed away in droves, with the notable exception of Google who sent VP Nicole Wong.

Erica Newland of CDT reports:

Ms. Wong and fellow witnesses Rebecca MacKinnon, Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, and Omid Mermarian, an Iranian blogger now living in San Francisco, all mentioned US trade policy as a cornerstone in the battle against censorship. Ms. MacKinnon voiced concern over outdated laws that “make it difficult for US Internet companies to legally serve activists from sanctioned countries like Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe.”

This analysis was echoed by Mr. Mermarian, who reported that current interpretations of sanctions have impeded the ability of Iranians to access the Internet and publish content online. On the other hand, said Ms. MacKinnon, it should not be so easy for U.S. companies to provide censorship and surveillance technology to regimes that consistently use this technology to suppress peaceful speech. Ms. Wong laid out a thoughtful framework for how a responsible company can proceed – and succeed – in international environments that threaten the ideal of an open and free Internet. She argued that “Internet censorship should be part of our trade agenda, because it has serious economic implications,” disfavoring international companies and limiting consumers’ choices. The Google Vice President’s strong statement on this issue prompted post-hearing questions about whether or not US trade representatives will challenge China’s censorship practices at the World Trade Organization. 

But while there seemed to be general consensus on the need to reevaluate US trade policies, statements by the senators also highlighted the competing interests that the US government is seeking to balance in this space. Senator Al Franken, for example, posed a question about the inclusion of copyright enforcement provisions in trade agreements; he seemed unaware of the potential for copyright provisions in US trade agreements to lead to overbroad copyright enforcement without careful balancing of speech concerns that can have a significant collateral impact on free expression. Meanwhile, Senator Durbin discussed child pornography and threats to national security, claiming that “most of us would approve of an Internet company cooperating with the government” in these cases. Neither senator seemed to recognize that such broad statements about cooperation between the US government and US companies often ricochet throughout the world and into the palms of countries like Iran and China, where the exigencies of “national security” and “pornography” are often used as pretenses for censorship. American policymakers must be mindful of how their proposals, however well motivated, are perceived abroad.

via Senate Hearing on Global Internet Freedom: A Clarion Call for Corporate Responsibility | Center for Democracy & Technology.