State Department Launches Internet Freedom Task Force

After Google, Microsoft and Yahoo asked for help, the U.S. State Department establishes a task force to investigate the problems posed to the Internet by repressive regimes.

February 15, 2006

3 Min Read
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The U.S. State Department on Tuesday established a task force to investigate the problems posed to the Internet by repressive regimes, a move that followed a call for help by Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc., which have been criticized for censoring information in China.

The task force would consider how the use of technology to restrict access to political content has impacted U.S. companies. The panel would also investigate the use of technology to track and repress dissidents and efforts to modify Internet governance structures in order to restrict the free flow of information.

"It's a top priority for the State Department and the U.S. government to do all we can to ensure maximum access to information over the Internet and to ensure minimum success by censors," Josette Shiner, undersecretary for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, said in a statement delivered to a news conference in Washington, D.C.

The task force is expected to draw upon the department's expertise in international communications policy, human rights, democracy, business advocacy, corporate responsibility and relevant countries and regions, Shiner said.

Besides working with U.S. companies and non-governmental agencies, such as human rights groups, the task force will seek help from the European Union and other governments facing similar problems with Internet censorship. Indeed, the EU Minister of Information has raised concerns over China's Internet restrictions, Shiner said.Over the coming weeks and months, the task force is expected to make recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on policy and diplomatic initiatives to "maximize access to the Internet and help minimize government efforts to block information," Shiner said.

In a question and answer session following the briefing, Shiner said the State Department had "very serious concerns" about the protection of privacy and data flowing over the Internet globally, and that it was particularly concerned with recent cases in China.

Restricting access to information has become a part of doing business for U.S. Internet companies in the communist nation. Microsoft MSN and Google filter search results to abide by Chinese laws and regulations. Yahoo recently sidestepped the issue by partnering with Chinese marketplace Alibaba.com, which runs the portal's operations in China.

Shiner would not say whether the department would support a bill being drafted by U.S. Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., that would require U.S. Internet companies to keep vital computer systems out of China and other nations deemed repressive by the U.S. government.

Shiner, who was joined at the briefing by Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary for democracy and global affairs, was careful not to criticize U.S. Internet companies, particularly Yahoo, which came under fire by human rights activists for providing information to the Chinese government that led to the jailing of a journalist.Besides China, Iran's persecution of bloggers and its censorship of news reports were at the top of the task force's list, Dobriansky said.

"I will guarantee you we have not forgotten Iran and the importance of access to information in Iran," Dobriansky said.

The task force's first meeting is scheduled for next week, and it will continue to work on issues related to Internet freedom for the "foreseeable future," Shiner said.

The task force would report to Rice through Shiner and Dobriansky.

In recent letters to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus investigating Chinese censorship, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo urged the Bush administration to take up the issue during talks with Beijing. The companies also said they were in talks with U.S. officials over their actions in the communist nation."While we will actively work to encourage governments around the world to embrace policies on Internet content that foster the freer exchange of ideas and promote maximum access to information, we also recognize that, acting alone, our leverage and ability to influence government policies in various countries is severely limited," Yahoo and Microsoft said in a joint letter.

Microsoft in January was forced to take down the blog of outspoken Chinese journalist Zhao Jing, in order to comply with China's laws. Yahoo last year gave information about journalist Shi Tao's personal email account to Beijing, which later jailed him for 10 years on charges of divulging state secrets.

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