Page last updated at 08:36 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Tech groups back internet freedom call for US companies

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton said "we stand for a single internet" that is free and open

Internet groups have welcomed a call for US companies to take a "principled stand" over censorship from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The move comes as Google considers pulling out of China following cyber attacks on its operations there.

"Censorship should not be accepted by any company," said Mrs Clinton.

"Her call for corporate responsibility will reverberate around the technology industry," said Leslie Harris of the Centre for Democracy and Technology.

"The question of how they chart an ethical path when operating in these difficult markets has been on the front burner of policy debate for close to five years," Ms Harris told BBC News. "Secretary Clinton has thrown down the gauntlet and companies are going to have to respond."

Google

The Secretary of State's remarks were part of a major foreign policy speech made in Washington DC where she named countries such as China, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan as having boosted censorship or harassed bloggers.

Google logo
China says the Google dispute should not be linked to "bilateral relations"

Mrs Clinton tackled head on the issue that has resulted in search giant Google considering leaving China after Gmail accounts of human rights activists were hacked.

"We look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review," said Mrs Clinton.

"Free expression and security are important issues for governments everywhere," said Google's Jill Hazelbaker in a statement.

"At Google we are obviously great believers in the value to society of unfettered access to information."

The Chinese government has said that Google, like any other internet company, is welcome in China if it obeys the laws there.

Compromised

Mrs Clinton's speech is being seen as possibly posing problems for companies doing business in countries where the regime restricts access to information through the internet.

"It's important that these companies speak for themselves in these kinds of issues," said Danny O'Brien, international outreach co-ordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group defending users rights in the digital world.

"I think too strong a position by the State Department makes US companies look like an extension of US foreign policy and that can put them in a very awkward position," said Mr O'Brien.

computer keyboards
Information freedom was at the heart of Secretary Clinton's speech

Evidence of how US businesses can be perceived was seen earlier this week when Chinese state media portrayed the Google decision to pull out as a political conspiracy by the US government.

The Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by the People's Daily, ran an editorial headlined: "The world does not welcome the White House's Google".

Trade association TechAmerica said doing business in countries that do not uphold the same values for a free and secure internet is a challenge.

"It's not a one size fits all issue, " said Phil Bond, TechAmerica president and chief executive officer. "Things are not black and white, they are shades of grey."

"Asking companies to make sure they do not just accept censorship is the very nerve Google touched and one that companies all respond to. It's a different calculation for different companies," he said.

"You absolutely on behalf of your employees, shareholders, company brand want to uphold some values and you also want to grow in a market to create American jobs."

Mrs Clinton urged companies to take a long term view.

"The private sector has a shared responsibility to safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what's right, not simply what's a quick profit.

"This needs to be part of our national brand. I'm confident that consumers worldwide will reward companies that follow those principles," she said.



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