Since the beginning of this year, weve heard plenty of Internet companies defend their actions in China, coming up with excuses for giving in to Chinese government restrictions on free speech on the Internet.
Its no wonder, then, that recent congressional hearings have taken executives from Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to task for helping the Chinese government and others suppress internal dissent in return for access to booming Internet markets.
With more than 100 million users, China is the worlds second-largest Internet market. And with a population of 1.3 billion, its obvious that the country has a potential user base U.S. technology companies cant afford to ignore. But governments in China and in countries such as Iran and the United Arab Emirates also present challenges to Internet companies with their demands to restrict and control open access to information and communication.
The U.S. State Department decided to get involved this month by setting up a Global Internet Freedom Task Force to monitor threats to an ongoing open Internet by repressive governments. This task force will also look at how censorship efforts abroad affect U.S. companies.
While it makes sense for the State Department to monitor how U.S. companies operate abroad, we ask that the task force hold back on implementing restrictions. Such limitations would serve only to stifle innovation and drive search technology outside the United States.
If the State Department needs to have a Global Internet Freedom Task Force, the group needs to live up to its mission of keeping the Internet free. Wed like to see the task force negotiate with other nations and promote the opening of protocols such as voice over IP, rather than tell executives how to run their companies. At the same time, U.S. companies need to take their social responsibilities into consideration. Companies such as Yahoo need to do much more than issue manifestoes on how to keep the Internet unfettered.
And rather than restricting what U.S. companies do abroad, the task force can serve a role as a bridge between the interested parties, the government, the companies, and the voices within China and elsewhere that are speaking out against censorship. Failing that, the task force could shine a light on the practices of these companies, aiding transparency and helping hold their execs feet to the fire by making the public aware of how these companies are doing business.
Internet companies should work together to come up with solutions of their own. They should team up to develop a code of conduct so U.S. companies have a united front when it comes to operating in countries with repressive governments. If anything, these tech giants need to be more transparent about what they censor and why.
We are heartened that the presence of U.S. Internet companies in China has already begun to make a difference. Chinese party leaders recently issued a scathing attack on the way their country handles media and information. The Internet is a force of freedom, and we want to see it stay that way.
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