Search engine giant Google is urging the U.S. Congress to make the promotion of an open Internet a key part of American foreign and trade policy. Google Vice President and Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong told a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday that Internet censorship not only stifles business and investment for U.S. companies but also for any enterprise that relies on the World Wide Web for its operations.
Speaking at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Internet freedom and the rule of law, Nicole Wong called for Internet openness to be a major plank of U.S. diplomatic efforts. She said that the free flow of information will help promote foreign assistance efforts and diplomacy as well as engage other countries on human rights.
She also said an open Internet should be part of the U.S. trade agenda because of the economic impact censorship has on companies.
"It [censorship] tilts the playing field toward domestic companies and reduces consumer choice," said Nicole Wong. "It affects not only U.S. and Internet companies, but also hurts businesses in every sector that uses the Internet to reach their customers."
Google has been at the forefront of recent rising concerns about cyber security and Internet freedom. In January, the company announced it was considering pulling out of China after its corporate infrastructure was the target of what is says was a highly sophisticated cyber attack. Google says the attack, which occurred in December and involved other companies - including media, chemical, technology and finance - originated in China.
In light of the attack and what Wong said is a measurable increase in censorship in China in all mediums - including the Internet - during the past year, Google is reviewing its business operations in China. It is also working to end its censorship of search results on Google.cn - the Chinese version of its search engine
When Google launched its Chinese search engine in 2006, it agreed to censor material deemed objectionable by Beijing authorities. At the time, the company argued that people having limited access to content was better than no access at all. Google does not have a timetable for when its censoring of searches in China will end.
Wong told the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law that promoting openness requires collaboration.
"No particular industry, much less any single company can tackle Internet censorship on its own," she said. "Concerted collective action is needed to promote online free expression and reduce the impact of censorship."
Wong said one way that companies can help is by joining the Global Network Initiative, or GNI - a coalition of Internet companies, human rights organizations, investors and higher education institutions that sets guiding principles on human rights and privacy for high tech companies.
Rebecca MacKinnon, a GNI participant, also testified at the hearing. She said the initiative aims to promote accountability while remaining flexible to the demands of individual markets.
"Fundamentally it's reasonable, I believe, to expect that all companies in the information and communications technology sector should acknowledge and seek to mitigate the human rights risks and concerns associated with the businesses just as they and other companies consider environmental risks and labor concerns," said Rebecca MacKinnon.
Getting U.S. high tech companies invovled in the push for Internet freedom has not been easy.
Since GNI was formed in 2008, it has struggled to grow its membership. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are its only three high technology industry members.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who heads the Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law noted that several other high tech companies were invited to the hearing but declined.
"With a few notable exceptions, the technology industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling even to engage in a dialogue with Congress about the serious human rights challenges the industry faces," said Senator Durbin.
Durbin said that social networking Web sites Facebook and Twitter were invited as was Internet security software maker McAfee, but that all declined to attend.
In response, Durbin said he will introduce legislation that would require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights. If they do not, he says they could face civil or criminal liability.