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Congress hears testimony on using Internet to quash human rights

By Jeanne Meserve, CNN Homeland Security Correspondent
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, criticizes technology companies for not appearing before Congress.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, criticizes technology companies for not appearing before Congress.
  • U.S. companies scolded for actively protecting freedom of expression on the Internet
  • Senator accuses firms of "aiding and abetting" repressive regimes
  • Witnesses want firms to fight censorship and use of Internet to track political opponents

Washington (CNN) -- "If it were not for the Internet, God knows how many more people would have been killed on the streets of Tehran" after the 2009 Iranian elections, an Iranian blogger told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

Omid Memarian, who said he was imprisoned and tortured by the Iranian regime for his pro-democracy Internet writings, was the star witness at a hearing in which U.S. technology companies were scolded for not taking a more active role in protecting freedom of expression on the Internet.

Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Delaware, accused U.S. corporations of "aiding and abetting" repressive regimes that restrict and censor the Internet or use the Internet to track political opponents.

"A lot of it is being done with U.S. technology and U.S. companies," Kaufman said.

The chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, accused the Internet community, with a few notable exceptions, of being unwilling to engage in a dialogue with Congress on human rights challenges. He said representatives from the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter, and the Apple and Hewlett-Packard companies declined invitations to testify. McAfee, which produces filtering software, initially agreed but then withdrew.

Witnesses accused the governments of Iran, China, Turkey, Vietnam and other countries of blocking and filtering Internet content to restrict freedom of expression and political dissent. Nicole Wong, a vice president of Google, testified that the number of countries routinely censoring the Internet has grown from a handful in 2002 to more than 40 today. She said that repressive regimes are developing more advanced tools to use against dissidents.

After Google accused China of hacking into its systems and the Google e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents, the company made a high profile decision to no longer censor its Chinese search engine. Wong said the company does not have a timetable for making a decision on whether to pull out of China.

A handful of technology companies have joined the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of Internet companies, human rights organizations, investors and institutions of higher learning, which has developed a voluntary code of conduct to protect human rights. Durbin said he will introduce legislation imposing civil or criminal penalties on companies that refuse to do so.

"Congress has a responsibility to ensure that American companies are not complicit in violating the freedom of expression, a fundamental human right that is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution," said Durbin.