Massimino Testifies Before Congress on Internet Freedom

Washington, D.C. – In testimony on Capitol Hill, Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino today called on Congress to press companies to take a more assertive stand on internet freedom. She urged companies to individually and collectively challenge intrusive practices by governments that mute dissent and persecute individuals who speak out against government policies and practices. “Repressive states across the globe have made the Internet a dangerous place for those seeking freedom and more representative government,” Massimino testified. “When pressed, companies that sell surveillance and dual-use technology that ends up being used for persecution and repression tend to offer several excuses. These excuses provide a roadmap for how corporate thinking and behavior needs to change in order for companies to become partners in protecting freedom of information and digital privacy.” In her remarks before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, Massimino debunked excuses used by surveillance and dual-use technology providers that comply with repressive governments that use these products to thwart free speech and dissent. For example, the companies often note that  they sell to private companies – not governments – so they are not responsible for misuse of their products through a third party or that they are required to follow the laws of jurisdictions where they operate. Noting that threats to global internet freedom span from China’s Great Firewall to surveillance conducted by repressive regimes in the Middle East, Massimino stated that companies and governments each play a role in addressing this concern, including:

  • Congress should continue to highlight expectations of companies and press them to adopt responsible policies. The lack of focused pressure has given ICT companies the time and space to stall on accountability for their actions.
  • Sellers of surveillance and dual-use technology or related hardware have an obligation to conduct due diligence to reveal the role their products play in enabling surveillance and repression by authoritarian governments.
  • The best course of action is not always clear. American businesses should ensure that they do not go into these complex situations blind by gathering as much information as possible regarding the society, government, and legal structures of the country in which they intend to operate, and form a specific, comprehensive plan for dealing with the objectionable demands that a government might make.

Massimino said that the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multi-stakeholder group that includes among its members Human Rights First and companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, was created to assist in the effort to establish improved accountability and understanding. The GNI’s members endorse a set of principles on freedom of expression and privacy grounded in international human rights norms. Members also commit to a set of implementation guidelines, to translate principles into policies and practices, and to submit to independent external assessments of their performance. Massimino noted that the effectiveness of the GNI will depend on the extent to which company claims of compliance can be verified through transparent reporting and independent monitoring and evaluation. “It can also help us to better understand the limits of collective voluntary action, and areas where the U.S. and like-minded governments need to reinforce – with legislation or regulation if necessary – both the expectations of companies, including policies and reporting, and of host governments to adopt rights respecting policies. In this regard, there is an important role for Congress to play in continuing to highlight expectations of companies and to press for adoption of responsible policies,” Massimino stated. Today’s hearing focused on one such legislative initiative. The Global Online Freedom Act, a bill sponsored by Representative Chris Smith (R-OH), seeks to ensure that U.S. policies are aligned to advance more responsible government and corporate behavior. The legislation would prevent U.S. businesses from cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance. Massimino said the bill marks an important milestone and agreed that the U.S. can do a better job of identifying and reporting internet-restrictive policies, and that this should be done across all countries. Massimino concluded, “Threats to internet freedom now come in many forms, from many places. The Obama Administration has articulated a clear policy in support of internet freedom and has made important early progress in elaborating its strategy, coordinating among US agencies and with our allies, and extending support to netizens under threat. The GNI is also making progress in raising awareness of the issue among companies and in promoting wider engagement. But we know from daily press reports that the threats to internet freedom require a more concerted and comprehensive response, from government and the private sector. The proposed legislation addresses an important and continuing gap in existing efforts. As one of our human rights colleagues from Belarus said last year in a meeting with President Obama, ‘for you, it’s simply information, but for us [a free internet] is life’.”


Published on December 8, 2011


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