Clinton warns Internet firms against aiding hardline regimes

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday warned Internet firms to avoid offering the "tools of oppression" to authoritarian Middle East regimes trying to crush democracy protests.

Clinton urged private companies to "embrace their role in protecting Internet freedom" and ensure protection of ordinary people as well as political activists.

Speaking at an Internet conference in The Hague, the chief US diplomat cited cases where "companies' products and services were used as tools of oppression," without naming the companies.

Companies have reportedly turned over sensitive information to governments about dissidents or shut down social networking accounts of activists involved in a political debate, she said.

"Today's news stories are about companies selling the hardware and software of repression to authoritarian governments," she told the Google-sponsored gathering.

"When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of a Syria, or Iran, or in past times Kadhafi, there can be no doubt that it will be used to violate rights," she said.

Activists have used Facebook, Twitter and other Internet technology to organize protests against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi.

Assad has used deadly violence against protests since March, Ahmadinejad staged a lethal crackdown on protests following disputed elections two years ago, and Kadhafi was overthrown in August and eventually killed in October.

She said "smart companies" decide before being asked by their governments to avoid dealing with countries that use repression.

Clinton also warned against bids by repressive governments to use international fora to impose national barriers on the Internet by upending the public-private partnership now governing it.

"This approach would be disastrous for Internet freedom. More government control will further constrict what people in repressive environments can do online," Clinton said.

"It would also be disastrous for the Internet as a whole, because it would reduce the dynamism of the Internet for everyone," she said.

Clinton aides said the comments referred to a Code of Conduct for Information Security that was introduced by Russia, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at the UN General Assembly in September.

China's Internet controls have already become a key irritant in relations with the United States, especially after a dispute over Chinese censorship led US search engine giant Google to cut back in China.

She said Washington supports the existing "public-private collaboration" that runs the Internet as it evolves in real-time, as well as the principles of multi-stakeholder Internet governance developed by the OECD this year.

"A multi-stakeholder system brings together the best of governments, the private sector, and civil society. And it works," she said.

© 2011 AFP

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