Multi-agency task force to review Web restrictions abroad

Group will make policy recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the coming months.

The State Department on Tuesday announced that it will establish a multi-agency task force to consider foreign policy implications when governments use technology to restrict access to political content online, track political dissidents or filter information online.

It is a "top priority" of the U.S. government to "ensure maximum access to information over the Internet and to ensure minimum success by censors to information or silence legitimate debate in this global town hall," Josette Shiner, the undersecretary of State for economic, business and agricultural affairs, said at a press conference.

The task force on global Internet freedom will meet for the first time next week. Representatives from U.S. companies, academic researchers and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, will be invited to discuss with State and Commerce department officials the challenges of operating in nations that regulate information.

Shiner said the group will make policy recommendations to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the coming months.

The announcement came one day before the House International Relations human rights subcommittee is slated to grill U.S. companies about their roles in filtering Internet content in China. Officials from Cisco Systems, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are scheduled to appear at the hearing, as are State Department officials.

None of them sent representatives to a Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing earlier this month. Congressional committees have authority not granted to informal caucuses.

U.S. companies have come under fire for helping the Chinese government restrict information online. Yahoo has been criticized for providing to the government personal information about the Internet activities of a journalist, Shi Tao, and a former public servant, Li Zhi. The disclosure of the information subsequently led to hefty prison sentences for them.

On Monday, Yahoo defended its Internet policies. The company conceded "doing business in certain countries presents U.S. companies with challenging and complex questions" but said it takes "users' privacy very seriously." The company further said it would work with government, industry and NGOs to explore industry practices and "promote the principles of freedom of speech and expression."

But some observers said that statement is insufficient. While Yahoo announced that it would act collectively with industry and government, "we want to make sure it is a process that occurs swiftly and doesn't languish," said Amy O'Meara, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International. Furthermore, any initiative must go beyond a dialogue, and that could be enforceable under U.S. law, she said.

New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, the chairman of the subcommittee, is drafting legislation that would require U.S. companies to house their e-mail servers in the United States in an effort to minimize Chinese control over information.

The draft also currently includes provisions that would establish export controls on certain technologies being used by governments restricting free speech, a code of conduct for Internet companies and an office at the State department to implement strategies aimed at combating Internet jamming by repressive governments.

Amnesty International also has urged Yahoo to boldly call for the immediate release of China's Internet dissidents. And Paris-based Reporters Without Borders last week urged Yahoo to release all of the names of Chinese people for whom it has provided data.

In the spirit of promoting access to political information, Wednesday's hearing will be the first in Congress to be covered live by the authors of a few Web logs, according to Smith's office.

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