U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday urged software companies and high-tech firms not to sell technology that would help repressive governments restrict Internet freedom.
Delivering a keynote address in the Netherlands at a 23-nation Dutch-sponsored conference at the Hague, convened to launch a coalition of countries that work with companies and civil society groups to advance Internet freedom, she also warned against the imposition of national barriers to the Internet.
Explaining that there are cases where the repressive use of products may or may not be foreseen by high-tech companies that make them, she said private firms need to embrace their role in protecting Internet freedom and avoid offering authoritarian regimes, in the Middle East and elsewhere, "the tools of repression."
"Today’s news stories are about companies selling the hardware and software of repression to authoritarian governments," she said. "When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria, or Iran, or in past times to Gadhafi, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights."
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said it is "vital" that technology developed in democratic countries not become "complicit" in human rights abuses.
"I say it clearly and loudly here: Export of certain technologies to certain countries must simply be prohibited if we know that they will be used to limit freedoms," he said. "We are worried about the proliferation of Internet filter technologies reaching repressive environments. As a government, it is our responsibility to prevent that."
Clinton, ending a five-day European trip, also warned of efforts by authoritarian states to use global organizations to impose national barriers to the Internet, replacing the loose public-private partnership that now governs it.
"If we’re not careful, governments could upend the current Internet governance framework in a quest to increase their own control. Some governments use Internet governance issues as a cover for pushing an agenda that would justify restricting human rights on-line," she said. "We must be wary of such agendas and united in our shared convictions that human rights apply on-line."
Clinton did not specify countries having such an agenda, but aides say she was referring to, among other things, a proposed "code of conduct" for information security introduced at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this year by Russia, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The Secretary of State said governments erecting barriers to Internet freedom will eventually face a "dictator's dilemma" of having to resort to greater oppression to keep barriers standing at the price of missed opportunities benefits.