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POLITICS: U.S. Lifts Restrictions on Web Services

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Mar 9 2010 (IPS) - After U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s January address on the role of internet freedom in U.S. foreign policy, the Barack Obama administration appears to be taking the first steps to introduce specific legislation and policies to exploit the role of the internet in opening up those countries ruled by oppressive or authoritarian governments.

On Monday, the Obama administration announced the implementation of exceptions in the Iranian Transactions Regulations, Sudanese Sanctions Regulations, and Cuban Assets Control Regulations for the export of online and social networking tools – such as Facebook, photo sharing and chat tools.

On Tuesday, Rep. Christopher Smith and Rep. David Wu announced the launch of the Global Internet Freedom Caucus, which aims to “promote peaceful free expression on the internet.”

The announcement by the U.S. Treasury that it would relax restrictions on U.S. companies seeking to export internet services and software to Iran, Cuba and Sudan was welcomed by companies that have sought to export internet technology but have been restricted by the Treasury Departments limitations on trade with these countries.

“As recent events in Iran have shown, personal Internet-based communications like email, instant messaging and social networking are powerful tools. This software will foster and support the free flow of information – a basic human right – for all Iranians,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin told reporters on Monday.

“At the same time as we take these steps, the administration will continue aggressively to enforce existing sanctions and to work with our international partners to increase the pressure on the government of Iran to meet its international obligations,” he said.

The Treasury Department will issue a general license for the export of free personal Internet services – which would mainly include chat and social networking tools – thereby assisting U.S. based internet companies to bypass strict export restrictions.

The internet search giant Google has been at the forefront of the battle between censorship and U.S.-based internet companies after its January announcement that it would no longer cooperate with Chinese internet censorship of its search results.

Bob Boorstin, director of policy communications of Google, told a Geneva human rights conference that the Treasury Department’s policy change was a “great step”.

“We are hopeful this will help people like yourselves in this room and activists all over the world take a small step down what is certainly a long road ahead,” said Boorstin.

Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley emphasised that the Treasury Department’s decision fell in line with the internet freedom speech delivered by Clinton in January.

“I wouldn’t say it’s directed specifically against one country. We’re working in more than 40 countries to help individuals silenced by oppressive governments. We think that internet freedom is a priority. And obviously, equipping these people with the modern tools of communication and technology is part of the universal principle that we will continue to support,” said Crowley.

The Obama administration’s increasing focus on internet freedom as a foreign policy tool has been driven to the forefront by the crackdown on Twitter and Facebook after the disputed Iranian elections in June of last year and after Google announced that Chinese hackers had gained access to the email account of a number of human rights activists, journalists and diplomats.

While the Treasury Department’s announcement on Monday offered the most immediate changes to U.S. policy for U.S. internet businesses seeking to do business abroad, politicians and NGOs held a press conference on Capitol Hill today to unveil the Global Internet Freedom Caucus which will serve as a forum for members of the private and public sectors to develop ideas on how to promote online freedom.

“The caucus will educate members of Congress and their staffs about global Internet freedom issues. It will serve as a forum for members of Congress, the executive branch, and U.S. industry to discuss and debate ideas on how to enhance online freedom and address minimum standards of conduct for businesses that operate in very difficult environments,” said Wu at a Tuesday morning press conference.

The caucus’s kickoff was also attended by NGO representatives, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.

“The caucus allows U.S. firms who are involved in any internet business with a repressive regime such as China, Iran, or other countries, to fight back if they get a request from the repressive regimes to censor content or give personal data,” Clothilde Le Coz, Washington director of Reporters Without Borders USA, told IPS.

In addition to launching the Global Internet Freedom Caucus, Wu announced that he was introducing legislation, the Internet Freedom Act of 2010, to establish the Internet Freedom Foundation to advocate for the development of technology to combat internet censorship and to educate about Internet freedom.

On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing in which Google executives will testify about the company’s January decision to end the censorship of its search results in China.

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