WASHINGTON — A top Senate Democrat on Tuesday criticized the technology industry for its unwillingness to stand up to foreign governments that restrict access to online content, pledging to introduce legislation that would impose penalties on Internet companies that facilitate human rights violations in repressive regimes.
“The bottom line is this: with a few notable exceptions, the technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling to even engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces,” Dick Durbin, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law and assistant Senate majority leader, said at a hearing on Internet freedom.
“I will introduce legislation that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights or face civil or criminal liability,” Durbin said.
Durbin chaired a hearing on Internet censorship in May 2008, when he secured commitments from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Yahoo (NASDAQ: YHOO) to join the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a global consortium that promotes a voluntary code of conduct for Internet companies to preserve the free flow of information.
Durbin said he was disappointed that no other Internet companies had come forward to join the GNI, saying that only AT&T; (NYSE: T), Skype and McAfee had expressed a willingness to consider the initiative.
Last month, Durbin sent letters of inquiry to 30 top IT firms asking about their policies concerning Internet censorship overseas and asking executives to appear at today’s hearing, where the witnesses were sworn in and testified under oath.
But the companies, which included Facebook and Twitter, declined the subcommittee’s invitation to appear, Durbin said.
A McAfee (NYSE: MFE) executive had been scheduled to testify, but declined shortly before the hearing. The lone representative from the tech sector was Nicole Wong, Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel.
Durbin had harsh words for the industry’s reluctance to cooperate with his investigation, saying that the lackluster response to the GNI and the refusals to appear at today’s hearing had convinced him that legislation was necessary.
Today’s hearing follows closely on Google’s revelations that it was targeted by a severe, coordinated cyber attack along with more than two dozen other companies that it had traced to China, where it threatened to close its operations if the government did not relax its Internet censorship policies.
In her written testimony, Wong said the investigation into the attacks was still underway, declining to say whether the company had decided to shutter its business in China.
“I want to stress that while we know these attacks came from China, we are not prepared to say who is carrying out these attacks,” Wong said.
“Because this is an ongoing investigation, I am not prepared to say any more about these attacks.”
She added that the decision to go public with the attacks and threaten to pull out of China was made by U.S. executives, “without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China.”