Thursday, February 16, 2006

Globalising the first amendment

One good thing is coming out of the debate caused by the actions of the Gang of Four (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco) in China. How can the US and other parts of the international community alleviate the pressure on Western companies from repressive regimes?

Urs Gasser has some comments on Rep. Chris Smith's discussion draft of a Global Online Freedom Act of 2006. Urs' only worry is that the Act would aim to restrict the ability of governments to attempt "the control, suppression, or punishment of peaceful expression of political or religious opinion" — despite the fact that this would encompass the activities of many European governments in restricting "hate speech" and "holocaust denial". It's time for Europe to sweep away these archaic laws and give the foul racists and Nazis that remain enough free-speech rope to hang themselves.

The key and enduring political contribution of the Internet has been to globalise the US Constitution's First Amendment. Any statute that continues this trend can only be a good thing.

Microsoft has also been finalising the details of a new policy that will contain the effect of government censorship. Orders to remove content on Microsoft's sites will only have effect in the country of origin. So a Chinese order to censor a Chinese blog will only prevent the viewing of that content within China and not elsewhere in the world.

These are certainly steps forward. Government and consumer pressure is essential to ensure that technology companies do not weigh the interests of their shareholders above the human rights of their customers.

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