WASHINGTON (AFP) — Human rights groups on Thursday urged US lawmakers to revive rules that would punish US firms which help authoritarian governments crack down on local computer users.
The House of Representatives Human Rights Commission heard testimony from groups calling on Congress and President Barack Obama to resurrect the stalled Global Online Freedom Act.
"These past days, the events in Iran have been a reminder of the importance of alternative sources of media in closed societies," Lucie Morillon, the Washington director of Reporters Without Borders, told the Commission.
"Congress should pass the Global Online Freedom Act... as soon as possible," she added.
The legislation, which would punish US firms for aiding Internet censorship in blacklisted countries, has been languishing in Congress since 2007.
It faced fierce opposition from the administration of former president George W. Bush and some technology firms, both warning it would hurt US business and diplomatic interests in places like China.
Although US firms are prohibited from doing business in Iran, the online battle there between cyber dissidents and the authorities has largely played out on US-owned networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.
As protests in Iran raged this week, the US Department of State said it had asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance, fueling the debate over Western technology companies' operations in closed societies.
One version of the proposed law would require US firms to report blacklisted country's requests for information on customers, and allow the US government to block that request.
Similar legislation to limit data transfer is also being considered by the European Union.
Amnesty International's T. Kumar urged Obama to act.
"If his administration fails we will be sad to say that at least on Internet freedom, President Obama's administration will be no better than Bush's administration," he said.
Their comments were echoed by representatives from Freedom House and the Laogai Foundation, a Washington-based group.
Iran has become just the latest crisis to place Western technology firms between dissidents and governments.
In 2004, Internet search engine Yahoo! became a lightning rod for criticism, after it was accused of providing the Chinese authorities with information that led to the imprisonment of one of its customers, Chinese dissident Shi Tao.
In 2005 he was jailed for 10 years and remains in a Chinese prison. A Congressional panel investigating the case publicly pilloried Yahoo! for its actions, with one prominent Congressman describing the firm's bosses as moral "pygmies."
Other firms have been accused of providing filtering software that blocks websites disliked by the local government.
But companies insist they must respect the local laws.
Since the Shi Tao scandal many, including Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have signed up to the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct.
In a statement Yahoo! said it had "learned tough lessons" in emerging markets, and pointed to the Global Network Initiative as a move to thwart "threats to online expression."
"The GNI was formed to help stakeholders in the technology industry uphold the rights of freedom of expression and privacy in the face of pressures from governments to comply with laws and policies that violate these internationally recognized human rights," it said.
In the text, signatories pledge to "minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression."
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