State Department Launches Internet Task Force

The new task force will study how censorship efforts abroad affect U.S. companies and also how repressive regimes use technology to restrict access to political information.

In light of the recent controversy over several U.S. companies compliance with Chinese censorship policies, the U.S. Department of State is launching a task force to monitor threats to an ongoing open Internet by repressive governments.

The Global Internet Freedom Task Force, announced Feb. 14, will examine how repressive regimes use technology to track and repress dissidents and to restrict access to political information. It will also look at how censorship efforts abroad affect U.S. companies.

Over the last month, several prominent U.S. companies have been criticized for cooperating with the Chinese authorities in censoring Internet content.

Google has taken fire for its willingness to block search engine topics that the Chinese government did not approve, and the media advocacy organization, Reporters Without Borders, reported in early February that Yahoo worked regularly with the Chinese police.

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Yahoo issued a statement Feb. 13 titled "Our Beliefs as a Global Internet Company," in which it said it is committed to open access to information and communication.

"We believe information is power," the Yahoo statement said. "Citizens across the globe are benefiting greatly from increased access to communications, commerce and independent sources of information."

Yahoo noted that doing business in some countries leaves U.S. companies with challenging questions.

"We are deeply concerned by efforts of governments to restrict and control open access to information and communication," the statement said. "We also firmly believe the continued presence and engagement of companies like Yahoo is a powerful force in promoting openness and reform."

Yahoo said it plans to work with other companies, government and academia to examine policies in countries where content is restricted. Where it is requested to restrict search results, Yahoo will do so if required by law but "only in a way that impacts the results as narrowly as possible."

Microsoft and Cisco Systems have also been criticized for cooperating with Chinas censorship efforts.

U.S. lawmakers will begin looking into the role of U.S. companies in censorship efforts at a hearing Feb. 15 by the House subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations and the subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

At the hearing, titled "The Internet in China: A Tool for Freedom or Suppression?" top executives from Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco will testify, as well as State Department officials and human rights advocates.

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