[WASHINGTON, DC] – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sent a letter today to 26 tech companies, urging them to join a voluntary code of conduct known as the Global Network Initiative (GNI). Recent crackdowns in China and Iran have made the code of conduct, which regulates the actions of technology firms operating in countries that restrict freedom of expression, even more important to the protection of human rights.

 

Durbin and Coburn, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, held a hearing in May 2008 on the issue of internet freedom and since then have pushed for the establishment and implementation of the tech industry’s code of conduct.

 

“We recognize and appreciate that information and communications technology (ICT) companies have enabled billions of people around the world to express themselves more fully and freely. Iranian opposition protesters’ use of the internet is one recent, prominent, and inspiring example. At the same time, recent events in China make clear that repressive governments around the world continue to restrict their citizens’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of expression,” the Senators wrote.

 

“We believe the Global Network Initiative has great potential to advance and protect human rights if member companies fully implement the GNI’s principles and the GNI’s membership is expanded.”

 

American tech companies now operate in many countries where the internet is censored or where governments use technology as a tool to repress their citizens. The result of these efforts is not only the suppression of freedom of speech, but also too often the persecution and imprisonment of those who violate a state’s strict internet regulations.

 

Today’s letter urged the companies to sign on to the GNI code of conduct and to work towards its full implementation. Today’s letter was sent to the CEO’s of the following companies: 3Com, Acer, Apple, AT&T, Cisco, Dell, eBay, Facebook, Fortinet, Hewlett-Packard, Juniper, Lenovo, McAfee, Motorola, MySpace, Nokia, Nokia-Siemens, Siemens, Skype, Sprint Nextel, Symantec, Toshiba, Twitter, Verizon, Vodaphone, and Websense.

 

Over the last several weeks, Human Rights and Law Subcommittee staff met with each of these companies to discuss the code of conduct, except for three companies that refused to meet: 3Com, Fortinet, and Websense.

 

A copy of the letter can be found below.

 

August 6, 2009

 

Dear Company CEO,

 

We appreciate [COMPANY NAME] representatives taking the time to meet with staff from the Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee recently about [COMPANY NAME]’s approach to human rights issues.

 

As the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee, we recognize and appreciate that information and communications technology (ICT) companies like [COMPANY NAME] have enabled billions of people around the world to express themselves more fully and freely. Iranian opposition protesters’ use of the internet is one recent, prominent, and inspiring example.

 

At the same time, recent events in China make clear that repressive governments around the world continue to restrict their citizens’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of expression. Companies that conduct business in such countries can play a vital role in promoting freedom of expression, but they must not do so at the expense of their users’ privacy. While no ICT company can absolutely guarantee that it will not unwittingly facilitate government repression, every ICT company should take reasonable measures to minimize the risk of such complicity.

 

One promising avenue for reducing exposure to human rights violations is the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a voluntary code of conduct for ICT companies that requires participating companies to take reasonable measures to protect human rights (for more information, see http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org). On May 20, 2008, we held a hearing on “Global Internet Freedom: Corporate Responsibility and the Rule of Law,” at which there was extensive discussion about the GNI, which was then being negotiated by, among others, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and leading human rights organizations and socially responsible investment companies.

 

Following the hearing, we encouraged Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! to complete the GNI negotiations as soon as possible. On October 28, 2008, the GNI was launched and since that time, the Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee has closely monitored its progress. We believe the GNI has great potential to advance and protect human rights if member companies fully implement the GNI’s principles and the GNI’s membership is expanded. While the GNI principles are universal, we understand that the GNI is intended to be adaptable to the particular circumstances of companies from all sectors of the ICT industry, regardless of size and geographic location. We also note that if ICT companies do not take reasonable steps to effectively protect human rights, like those contemplated by the GNI, it may be necessary for Congress to consider legislation to ensure that companies take such measures.

 

Accordingly, we strongly encourage [COMPANY NAME] to consider participating in the GNI.

 

We would appreciate your responses to the following questions by August 27, 2009:

 

  1. What are your company’s views on the GNI?
  2. Will your company consider joining the GNI? If yes, please describe the process you will follow to consider joining the GNI. If no, why not?
  3. Does your company currently follow any of the GNI principles?
  4. Please describe your company’s policies and practices for advancing and protecting human rights and minimizing the risk that your products and/or services will facilitate human rights abuses.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Richard J. Durbin Tom Coburn

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