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Congress to like Google's censor-handling proposal?

Silicon Valley's again in front of a Senate hearing today, and some sensible ideas are finally on the table about how to deal with censorship-heavy countries.

Tech companies are trooping to Congress today to testify before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law.

Fairly or not, politicians have held the tech industry's feet to the fire over sundry issues touching on human rights in the age of the Internet. It's been an unsatisfying debate marked by lots of finger-pointing but little in the way of results.

In her prepared remarks, Google Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong offers a few concrete suggestions that I think make sense. Here's a summary:

  • Include censorship in trade negotiations. We believe that government-sponsored censorship is one of the largest barriers to making information more available online, and so it is vital for the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, to make censorship a central element of our bilateral and multilateral trade talks.

  • Strengthen the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. More can be done to ensure that the ICCR--developed more than 30 years ago--truly protects free expression online. The U.S. should renew diplomatic efforts to encourage more countries to ratify the agreement; countries that belong to the covenant should submit regular compliance reports; and aid should be provided to help individuals filing complaints under the covenant.

  • Enhance the State Department's Global Internet Freedom Task Force, and appoint an at-large ambassador. The task force has accomplished a lot so far but should receive additional prominence, authority, and funding. For example, the State Department could appoint an ambassador-at-large for Internet freedom to serve as a diplomatic advocate for these issues.

  • Promote free expression as part of foreign aid. Government can do more to tie U.S. aid programs to countries' implementation of their ICCR obligations. We have already urged the Millennium Challenge Corporation to incorporate Internet censorship in measuring whether candidate countries have achieved criteria for democratic governance.

Up until now, Silicon Valley's been left on its own to deal with authoritarian regimes like China. That's a no-win proposition. Without solid backing from Uncle Sam, there's no way that even a powerhouse tech company like Google or Microsoft is going to be able to stand on its own. (Remember the Shi Tao affair?)

The Google suggestions aren't the last word in figuring out rules of engagement, but they're a sensible beginning. Now it's up to the hired help in Washington to take the lead. Will they grab the opportunity or opt for more grandstanding? We'll find out later today.