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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

U.S. Initiatives to Promote Global Internet Freedom: Issues, Policy, and Technology

Patricia Moloney Figliola, Coordinator
Specialist in Internet and Telecommunications Policy

Casey L. Addis
Analyst in Middle Eastern Affairs

Thomas Lum
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Modern means of communications, led by the Internet, provide a relatively inexpensive, open, easy-entry means of sharing ideas, information, pictures, and text around the world. In a political and human rights context, in closed societies when the more established, formal news media is denied access to or does not report on specified news events, the Internet has become an alternative source of media, and sometimes a means to organize politically.

The openness and the freedom of expression allowed through blogs, social networks, video sharing sites, and other tools of today’s communications technology has proven to be an unprecedented and often disruptive force in some closed societies. Governments that seek to maintain their authority and control the ideas and information their citizens receive are often caught in a dilemma: they feel that they need access to the Internet to participate in commerce in the global market and for economic growth and technological development, but fear that allowing open access to the Internet potentially weakens their control over their citizens. The ongoing situation of Google in China is representative of these issues.

Legislation now under consideration in the 111
th Congress would mandate that U.S. companies selling Internet technologies and services to repressive countries take actions to combat censorship and protect personally identifiable information. Some believe, however, that technology can offer a complementary and, in some cases, better and more easily implemented solution to some of those issues. They argue that hardware and Internet services, in and of themselves, are neutral elements of the Internet; it is how they are implemented by various countries that is repressive. Also, Internet services are often tailored for deployment to specific countries; however, such tailoring is done to bring the company in line with the laws of that country, not with the intention of allowing the country to repress and censor its citizenry. In many cases, that tailoring would not raise many questions about free speech and political repression.

This report provides information regarding the role of U.S. and other foreign companies in facilitating Internet censorship by repressive regimes overseas. The report is divided into several sections:
  • Examination of repressive policies in China and Iran, 
  • Relevant U.S. laws, 
  • U.S. policies to promote Internet freedom, 
  • Private sector initiatives, and 
  • Congressional action. 
Two appendixes describe technologies and mechanisms for censorship and circumvention of government restrictions. .

Date of Report: January 3, 2011
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: R41120
Price: $29.95

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