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US and European companies jointly responsible for Internet censorship, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has called for legislation to allow US and European Internet companies operating in repressive countries to escape rules imposed on them by these governments.

The government in Iran uses western technology, such as Nokia and Siemens, to filter the Web and emails. In China, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has just confirmed that all computer manufacturers must include anti-pornography filtering software in all PCs from 1st July.

"Iran and China can now block access to news and information using western technology. It is high time that the United States and the European Union protected their companies from the dangerous misuse of their products," the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

"These companies must have a legal and official remedy to apply against these measures that force them to obstruct the free circulation of information. A law like the Global Online Freedom Act (GOFA) would allow that."

The GOFA is a draft law being studied in the United States and in a different version within the EU. It was proposed in the House of Representatives by Republican Senator Christopher Smith in a new version on 6 May. Inspired by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, it aims to prevent US companies from "cooperating with repressive governments in transforming the Internet into a tool of censorship and surveillance." It also aims to ensure that the US government fulfills its responsibility "to promote freedom of expression on the Internet" and "to restore public confidence in the integrity of US businesses."

The European version of GOFA was put before the European Parliament on 17 July 2008 by Dutch member, Jules Maaten of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), and was inspired by the US model. It urges European companies to assume their "responsibility to uphold the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" and requires them to locate their servers outside repressive countries. (download the proposed directive on RSF's website).

"The Wall Street Journal" has reported that European companies Siemens (Germany) and Nokia (Finland) have supplied the software for surveillance of telecommunications in Iran through a "joint venture" Nokia Siemens Network. Nokia confirmed the sale of its technology using "deep packet inspection" (DPI), which allows interception of all kinds of communications, such as emails, phone calls, images or messages posted on social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc). DPI is generally used to grade data on the Internet (sending an email on high priority for example).

China's MIIT on 8 June this year said that it had given companies operating there six weeks to fit their computers with new software - Green Dam Youth Escort - paid for by the government to protect "young people" from "harmful" content online. Since March it has been downloaded more than 3 million times, is apparently used in 2,279 schools and installed in some 518,000 computers. Chinese companies Lenovo, Inspur and Hedy have reportedly already installed the software on more than 52 million computers.

The Open Net Initiative says that the software "has an influence that goes well beyond the protection of young people: the filtering options include blocking political and religious content" (download the study in PDF on RSF's website). So far only Microsoft has shown concern about the effects on the free circulation of information as a result of installing this software.

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