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Misdirected Blame on Internet Companies for Failures in International Affairs & China

“With a few notable exceptions, the tech industry seems unwilling to regulate itself. I will introduce legislation that will require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, or face civil and criminal liability.” – Senator Dick Durbin, as reported by the Washington Post.

china flag We hear you, Sen. Durbin. The practices of many nations toward free speech and political dissidents are terribly wrong. But we respectfully and strongly disagree with your statements at yesterday’s Senate Judiciary hearing on global Internet freedom and the rule of law.


The growth of IT companies throughout the world has been an enormous boon to free speech and human rights. Although these technologies present new challenges, particularly when taken together with widely varying laws, they are doing far more good than harm, everywhere that they are deployed.


But if you attended the hearing and knew nothing about the Internet, you’d think that American online companies doing business in China and elsewhere were pure evil – as if they were the ones with the power to not comply with – or change — the criminal laws of other nations.


In particular, Facebook and Twitter were called out for not joining the Global Network Initiative (GNI). The product of more than two years of study and development by companies and public interest groups, the Initiative offers a set of guiding principles for global IT companies doing business in an increasingly global environment.


But while the GNI exposes online companies to new scrutiny, it doesn’t provide any protection from aggressive governments. And at a price tag of $200,000, the GNI isn’t cheap. How effective will it be, really, at changing the practices of totalitarian nations? This is the real goal, and it seems that the best way to achieve this is through diplomacy among governments, not by deputizing online companies to be our State Department.


Which brings us to the real question (first raised in this NY Times LTE): In a China with no American content or online services, will the goals of free speech and civil rights be better served? We’re right to focus on the human rights abuses of other nations and how online companies can better promote free expression, but let’s place the object of the scorn where it truly belongs.


-Braden Cox