The U.S. State Department said Tuesday it is setting up a task force to combat efforts by foreign countries to restrict access to the Internet. Some U.S. high-tech firms have been accused of complicity with governments trying to censor the Internet or use Internet-derived information against dissidents.
The creation of the State Department's Global Internet Freedom Task Force reflects growing concern among U.S. officials, computer experts, human rights advocates and others about efforts by some countries to limit access to the Internet, or turn the system against domestic critics.
The new task force will be made up of experts from various State Department bureaus including business and human rights, and is to examine foreign policy aspects of Internet freedom, including the use of technology to track and repress dissidents or to restrict Internet political content.
Human rights activists have accused some U.S. firms of collaborating with foreign governments to censor Internet content, including service provider Yahoo, which is alleged to have given the Chinese government information that led to the jailing two dissident E-mail users.
At a press event launching the task force, Undersecretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs Josette Shiner called the Internet the greatest purveyor of news and information in history and a nightmare for would-be censors. But she said there are severe challenges to its openness, in China and elsewhere. "We have very serious concerns about the protection of privacy and data throughout the Internet, globally, and in particular some of the recent cases raised in China. And we will continue to press our concerns with the government of China. We will continue to work with our companies, and we applaud their efforts to take voluntary steps that would help insure privacy of data and protection of data on the Internet," she said.
Undersecretary Shiner, who will be a co-chair of the task force, said U.S. officials are also concerned about Internet curbs in Iran, where opposition Internet websites and their editors have been targeted by authorities.
She said access to information is a basic human right that the United States recognizes in every country including Iran.
Announcement of the task force came on the eve of joint hearings by two U.S. Congressional subcommittees into what lawmakers say are actions by U.S.-based Internet companies that violate American principles.
A senior member of the House International Relations Committee, Democrat Tom Lantos, earlier this month complained that U.S. firms have caved in to the Chinese government for the sake of profits.
Internet firms including Yahoo and the leading search engine Google have said they must comply with terms set by China or risk losing access to that market.
China, believed to have the second-largest number of Internet users after the United States, says it has adopted management steps to limit what it terms harmful, immoral or illegal Internet content.