New Calls for Global Web Censorship Probe

In response to the recent flurry of street-level updates from citizens using social media during the unrest that followed the disputed Iranian election, a lawmaker is calling for a congressional inquiry to ensure that those services don’t go dark under pressure from repressive governments.

Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) has appealed to the leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to hold a hearing to revisit the contentious issue of Internet censorship overseas, hoping to raise awareness and lend a formal stamp of approval to the groups and companies working to keep Web sites and services like Twitter and Facebook up in the face of government restrictions.

“It is becoming increasingly evident that communications technologies and applications that are developed in the United States are becoming a growing part of the lives of people beyond our borders,” Bono Mack wrote in a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the Commerce Committee and its Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet.

“It is imperative that the U.S. government do more to uphold and promote basic human rights, free expression and the economic activity generated and supported by the Internet,” she said.

Spokespeople for the committee leaders told they were reviewing Bono Mack’s request, but that there were no immediate plans to convene a hearing on the issue.

This would not be the first time online censorship abroad has caught the attention of lawmakers. In 2006, executives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cicso appeared in a high-profile hearing to defend their Internet operations in China. In the last Congress, Sen. Richard Durbin chaired a Judiciary Committee hearing revisiting the Internet heavies’ China policy.

But in the time since, the face of the Internet has changed considerably as sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have marched steadily into the mainstream and given people easy ways to broadcast real-time updates in areas where the mainstream media might not have access.

In the demonstrations that followed the election in Iran last month, for instance, the government moved swiftly to expel media outlets, and, for a time, the world watched as eye witnesses posted updates on Twitter, while correspondents from outlets like the BBC and Associated Press filed their reports from cities in neighboring countries.

Reflecting on the demonstrations a few weeks later at a security conference outside Washington last month, New York Times reporter David Sanger described the use of social media in the Iranian elections as a point of no return, both for sharing news with the world and organizing resistance within a repressive state.

“The art of street protest against a government will never be the same after what we saw a few weeks ago,” Sanger said.

He said he was not convinced that the protests “would have come together had it not been for the technologies that many Americans had not really thought of in political terms prior to this month.”

The Iranian people’s reliance on Twitter to communicate with the outside world was not lost on the State Department, which contacted the site’s executives to request that they delay a scheduled service outage so Twitter would stay online in Iran.

But it was broader than just Twitter. Images of the death of Neda Agha Soltan, known to most of the world simply as Neda, appeared on YouTube and Flickr and quickly became among the most recognizable icons of the Iranian government’s efforts to put down the demonstrations.

“At a time when the Ahmadinejad government was doing everything in its power to control messages and images leaving Iran, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube became unfiltered, citizen-fueled news bureaus of reports filed straight from the streets of Tehran,” Bono Mack said.

She also called attention to China, a key U.S. trading partner long criticized for restricting access to online content deemed subversive.

The most recent flare-up in China involved the uprising of the ethnic Uighars in Xinjiang province, but China has also come under fire in recent months for censoring Internet access to YouTube content documenting harsh tactics used against Tibetan demonstrators and blocking certain sites during last year’s Olympics in Beijing.

“A hearing held by your committee will help shed light on government-sponsored censorship and around the world and its serious implications for trade and human rights that cannot be ignored,” Bono Mack said.

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