- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

VOULIAGMENI, Greece

The first U.N. Internet Governance Forum logged off Thursday after four days during which prominent Western corporations were accused of helping Chinese authorities suppress dissidents.

“We have not heard a public commitment from companies on human rights values,” said Erica Razook, a legal adviser with Amnesty International.

“We’re not telling them to get out of certain countries, but to take a stand on human rights in those countries,” she said on the sidelines of the forum, held in the southern Athens suburb of Vouliagmeni.

Software and service providers Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. have been criticized by human rights groups as either supplying the means for or facilitating Chinese efforts to monitor and jail suspected political opponents.

At the U.N. forum, Reporters Without Borders accused Cisco of selling surveillance equipment to the Chinese police.

Microsoft helped shut down the Web log of a Chinese New York Times researcher at the request of Beijing, Amnesty said, and Google has been accused of self-censoring its search engine to filter out terms Chinese authorities deem subversive.

On the forum’s closing day, Amnesty urged governments to stop suppressing freedom of expression on the Internet. The group also asked intelligent technology (IT) firms to stop supplying repressive regimes with the technological means to carry out crackdowns.

“People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference,” said Amnesty program director Dan McQuillan. “I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet, and on companies to stop helping them do it,” he added.

Amnesty also presented a petition, backed by 50,000 online signatures.

The IT corporations countered that through their presence in China, more than 130 million Chinese are online today and have access to more information.

Organizers said this sort of debate justified such a forum, even though it had no decision-making mandate, pointing to attendance by more than 1,200 people from more than 90 countries. They included national specialists, IT firms and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

“Four years ago, many people assembled in this meeting room would not have spoken to one another. This is definitely changing,” said Markus Kummer, chairman of the United Nations’ working group on Internet governance.

“The fact that the forum has no decision-making power means that nobody is afraid of it, and this is conducive to a free and open discussion,” he said.

A number of countries, corporations and NGOs said they had formed partnerships during the forum and plan to cooperate on projects including privacy, online rights and sexual advocacy before the 2007 forum in Rio de Janeiro.

But there also were complaints from Iran and South Africa that they had not been given an opportunity to adequately express their views on ethical issues and connectivity-cost concerns.

Formed as a last-minute compromise at a 2005 world summit in Tunis, Tunisia, to forestall a rift between the United States and the rest of the world over control of the Internet, the IGF in Athens encouraged diverse groups to talk to one another despite initial caution, said Nitin Desai, special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Internet governance.

“There is a culture problem. Governments are used to a diplomatic protocol … while NGOs are used to shouting loudly to be heard,” Mr. Desai said.

“If you want to work with somebody, you’re not going to be able to if you start calling them names … there is need for cultural adjustment on all sides,” he added.

New Delhi and Cairo have agreed to host the 2008 and 2009 forums, respectively

On Thursday, Lithuania and Azerbaijan expressed an interest in hosting the forum in 2010.


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