Congress yesterday considered how to resolve the dilemma of U.S. Internet companies that try to serve their customers but end up serving repressive foreign governments.
Witnesses at a congressional hearing talked about dissidents in China, Syria and Russia who were imprisoned after posting their political thoughts on the Internet.
Routers, e-mail and other Internet services of U.S. companies helped the foreign governments track down the dissidents in some cases, the witnesses told members of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on human rights and the law.
“Cisco“s routers are supercomputers,” said Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a group that advocates against political censorship of the Internet. “They can be used as a toys, but they can also be made into an A-bomb.”
He was referring to the Chinese government’s Golden Shield Project, sometimes referred to as the Great Firewall of China. It is a censorship and surveillance program run by China’s Ministry of Public Security that began operating in November 2003.
The Global Internet Freedom Consortium says Cisco Systems Inc.’s contract with the Chinese government to help build the Golden Shield program enabled Chinese police to find and arrest dissidents by tracking their Internet postings back to the source.
Information presented at the hearing included a 2002 PowerPoint presentation reportedly produced by Cisco and the Chinese government. It gave an update on China’s Internet security network and its goal to “combat ‘Falun Gong’ evil religion and other hostiles.”
Falun Gong is a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government as a cult.
Chinese government documents given to The Washington Times by the Global Internet Freedom Consortium and translated into English say, “The implementation and architecture of the second and third level (Golden Shield) network is solely based on Cisco switches, routers and intelligent administration systems.”
A Cisco executive said use of its systems for political repression resulted from someone customizing the software and equipment for purposes that the company does not condone.
“We are providing generic routing equipment,” said Mark Chandler, Cisco’s general counsel. He said he was “appalled” to hear the Golden Shield was being used to arrest and imprison political dissidents.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is considering legislation to make U.S. companies refrain from using their Internet services to assist repressive governments.
U.S. companies “have a moral obligation to protect freedom of expression,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
A bill pending in the House could impose criminal penalties on Internet companies that help governments apprehend political dissidents by turning over information that identifies them. It was introduced last year by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican.