Servers That Snitch

Monday, June 9, 2008

EVERYONE WANTS to boost American exports. But the last thing any U.S. company should do is sell tools of repression to authoritarian regimes abroad. It would be especially troubling if businesses were to help dictators muzzle the Internet, the most powerful facilitator of free expression and communication ever invented.

So there was understandable concern in the Senate last month over an internal document from the Hong Kong subsidiary of Cisco Systems. It appeared to suggest that the computer networking giant's Chinese employees contemplated pitching the Chinese Ministry of Public Security their products for use in "combating Falun Gong evil cult and other hostile elements." Falun Gong, a spiritual movement, has been harshly repressed by the Chinese government. A Cisco representative told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that the document did not propose using Cisco equipment for political purposes and that, in any case, no Cisco equipment is specially designed for spying or censorship.

The facts of this case remain to be sorted out. But, fairly or not, Cisco was on the defensive because other U.S. companies have assisted, or acquiesced in, Chinese efforts to create a freedom-free Internet. In 2004, Yahoo's Hong Kong subsidiary turned over e-mails that helped authorities identify and punish dissident journalist Shi Tao and others. Google's Chinese search engine blocks certain subjects that Beijing finds politically inconvenient. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called the hearing to explore whether the Senate should follow the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which has voted out the Global Online Freedom Act. The bill would subject U.S. Internet companies to civil and criminal penalties if they finger dissidents to repressive states. Its supporters argue that this would give American firms political cover when they resist cooperation with authoritarians abroad.

The bill would declare Internet freedom official U.S. policy, create a permanent State Department office on the issue, and require Google and other search engines to report all censored search terms to that office. It also includes a study of U.S. export controls, which may need updating to account for computer technology that can repress as well as liberate. These all seem sensible; we're less certain about the bill's penalty provisions. They apply to "Internet-restricting" countries, to be identified by the State Department. But would that include Germany, which polices neo-Nazi content that might be protected in the United States? China's Internet users are probably better off with a censored Google than none at all. But companies must not cross the line between grudgingly submitting to state control and actively assisting it. For 18 months, the industry has been working with academics, human rights groups and investors to come up with best practices for dealing with repressive government policies. The sooner, and more credibly, the industry regulates itself, the less need there will be for Congress to step in.

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