Representatives of Amnesty International, Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders along with members of the Laogai Research Foundation and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy were brought together on Capitol Hill by the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Thursday.
Although organized as a discussion on global trends in Internet censorship, the discussion focused on the situation in Iran, where the government has placed restrictions on foreign reporters trying to cover post-election demonstrations and the Internet.
Lucie Morillon, Washington Director for Reporters Without Borders, says the situation underscores the growing importance of the Internet and social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter in helping people communicate to the outside world. "These past days, the events in Iran have been a reminder of the importance of an alternative source of media in closed societies. Some say Twitter has been to the Iranian events what CNN was for the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 -- a platform to reach the rest of the world," she said.
Daniel Calingaert of Freedom House recalled that in a report the organization released in April studying the degree of Internet and digital media freedom in 15 countries, Iran was classified as "not free," along with China, Cuba and Tunisia.
He says countries in that category use sophisticated multi-layer systems to filter and control the Internet, including blogs and network sites such as Facebook.
"Over the past few days in Iran, we were reminded of the threats to Internet freedom, but also of the Internet's great potential. Following the June 12 presidential election, the Iranian government intensified its Internet filtering. It also disrupted social networking sites like Facebook, and it jammed transmission of SMS text message on mobile phones. And this was all an effort to prevent citizens from voicing their frustration and from organizing protests. Nonetheless, Iranians were still able to use digital media to get news and photographs and videos out of the country," he said.
Freedom House says Internet users in Iran "operate in an environment that features filtering of content, particularly domestically produced political news and analysis, together with intimidation, detention and torture of bloggers, online journalists and cyber activists."
Mehdi Khalaji, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Iran's government blocked Facebook and Twitter, which were critically important outlets immediately after the contested election.
Referring to reports that the Iranian government has invested in foreign technology, allowing more intense monitoring of the Internet, Khalaji and others on the panel said Western governments need to consider how such technology can be used as a tool of repression in countries where people seek more freedom.
"That's why people in Iran do not feel secure to communicate through email or even attached files on emails [, which] are under surveillance [by] the government. That is one of the things that shows that many companies in the West don't feel the responsibility or enough responsibility [for] what they are doing in terms of trade and selling this sort of technology to countries [such as] Iran, which can be dangerous for the [lives] of many people," Khalaji said.
T. Kumar, Advocacy Director for Amnesty International echoed other organizations in calling for the U.S. Congress to pass the Global Online Freedom Act. The proposal would require the United States to make free expression and privacy on the Internet a top foreign policy priority.
"The biggest challenge is more than this [passing the legislation]. It is that the Internet companies themselves not become friends of the oppressive societies. Instead of becoming agents of change, they become agents of oppressive governments. The final challenge is for President Obama's administration to wake up and move fast to ensure that Internet freedom is free everywhere," Kumar said.
Sponsored by Republican Representatives Frank Wolf and Chris Smith, the proposed legislation would set up an Office of Global Internet Freedom in the State Department and mandate that U.S. Internet companies act to fight censorship and protect personal information.