Durbin Chairs Follow-Up Hearing On Global Internet Freedom

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) chaired a follow-up hearing today on “Global Internet Freedom and the Rule of Law.” The hearing, held before the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, examined information technology (IT) industry business practices in internet-restricting countries and discussed Obama Administration efforts to promote internet freedom around the world.

“With a few notable exceptions, the information technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces.  As a result, I plan to introduce legislation that would require internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability,” Durbin said. “I recognize that the IT industry faces difficult challenges when dealing with repressive governments, but Congress has a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating the fundamental human rights of internet users around the globe.”

Durbin’s Subcommittee held its first hearing on global internet freedom in May 2008.  At that hearing, members heard testimony which highlighted the actions of repressive governments around the world and their efforts to censor the internet and persecute human rights and democracy advocates who express their views online. (More information, including a webcast of the 2008 hearing, can be found here.)  Since then, the scale and scope of internet censorship has increased dramatically.  The number of countries which censor internet content has grown to over 40.


To highlight the censorship of search results, Durbin conducted an image search for “Tiananmen” on both Google.com and Google.cn – Google’s Chinese search engine. Google.com returned results which included the famous Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Google.cn however returned no such results and instead included postcard pictures of a quiet and peaceful square. Screenshots of both searches are attached.


Durbin commended Google for its decision to stop censoring its Chinese search engine and noted that Yahoo! and Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, also censor the internet in China. 


Durbin also urged firms to join a voluntary code of conduct known as the Global Network Initiative (GNI).  The code of conduct, which regulates the actions of technology firms operating in countries that restrict the internet, currently has only three members: Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!.


Last month, Durbin sent letters to 30 technology companies asking them to join the GNI and seeking more information about their business practices in China. Copies of the letters can be found here; responses to those letters can be found in the "Related Files" section below.


Only three companies, AT&T, McAfee and Skype, have committed to discuss joining GNI.  One company, Websense, has indicated that they will join the GNI if the membership fee is waived.


Testifying at today’s hearing were: Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State; Daniel J. Weitzner, Associate Administrator for the Office of Policy Analysis and Development, National Telecommunications and Information Administration , U.S. Department of Commerce; Nicole Wong, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Google Inc.; Rebecca MacKinnon, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy, Princeton University; and Omid Memarian ?Iranian Blogger and Journalist.


Facebook, Twitter, HP, and Apple were all asked to testify and refused.  McAfee agreed to testify at today’s hearing but withdrew late last week.


More information on Durbin’s interest in the issue of global internet freedom, including a series of letters, can be found in the "Related Posts" section below.