Google, Yahoo and Microsoft say government should stand behind global Internet freedom, but not all support legislation.
But a key question that remains after the U.S. Department of State concluded its inaugural global Internet freedom conference here is how to determine when such requests are "legitimate" and warrant compliance.
That issue took center stage last year amid reports that Chinese authorities had succeeded in silencing--and in some cases imprisoning--cyberdissidents, thanks to cooperation from Yahoo and Microsoft.
"It's not very simple when they just say, 'Here's the e-mail account, and we're investigating under the following 17 organized crime and terrorism statutes,'" said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel. "We can't just go...snooping through e-mail accounts to figure out whether we like what they've been engaged in."
Even under U.S. law, corporations aren't expected to make moral judgments about the legitimacy of FBI or other authorities' requests for information about their users, so they shouldn't be expected to do the same on an international level, suggested Michael Samway, Yahoo's deputy general counsel. "That's why we need the government's help," he said.
Google's McLaughlin went so far as to suggest that the government "fight for our interests in the trade arena the same way they've been fighting for our interests in Detroit. Censorship should be treated as a trade barrier and be written into free-trade agreements."
State Department officials had few concrete answers themselves, though some had strong words for their international counterparts.
"We're here to say we will not stand by the unwarranted use of Internet restrictions by repressive regimes," said Barry Lowenkron, an assistant secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
The United States has been attempting to elevate its profile on global Internet censorship, which it views as a key human rights concern, ever since Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice announced the formation of the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, or GIFT, last February.
The U.S. government's wrath at that time was sparked primarily by goings-on in China, where, in addition to the Microsoft and Yahoo incidents, Google had recently rolled out a censorship-friendly version of its search engine to comply with the government's wishes.
But the issue is "about a lot more than China, and it's important we treat it as such," said Dunstan Hope of the consulting group Business for Social Responsibility, which has been working with Yahoo, Google and Microsoft on how to operate in more restrictive countries.
In fact, about 25 countries around the world are currently engaged in Internet filtering, said Robert Faris, research director for an ongoing study of global Internet censorship techniques at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Deciding which countries to look out for, however, is complex because of what Google's McLaughlin called a global "conflict of values." Google, for instance, recently had to weigh a request from Brazilian authorities seeking information on who were allegedly engaged in racist activities.
Racism happens to be illegal in the South American nation, which may have differing laws but does not typically make the U.S. government's short list of repressive regimes. (In the United States, racist remarks are protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.)
"There are lots of ways in which democracies and quasidemocracies restrict access to content and information, and they conflict," he said.
Some human rights activists who participated in Tuesday's event argued that the Internet companies were making the issue more complex than necessary.
"Start with examples where there is an agreement that there is an egregious practice," such as China's notorious censorship of government critics, said Michael Posner, president of the advocacy group Human Rights First. "There are going to be situations where governments are engaged in mischief, and there has to be some way of evaluating that."
Amnesty International Advocacy Director T. Kumar said the best way to curb Internet censorship is to pass a federal law aimed at limiting the dealings of U.S. companies in countries deemed "Internet-restrictive."
Reintroduced this year by Rep. Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, that measure proposes, among other things, prohibiting U.S. companies from turning over personal information about their subscribers to governments in those locales except for "legitimate law enforcement purposes."
"We would urge U.S. corporations to use this law as a cover to say, 'We can't abide by what's being asked in different countries,'" Kumar said.
That general idea didn't sit well with Microsoft Associate General Counsel Ira Rubinstein. "The notion that just by enacting U.S. legislation, you're going to solve this problem, because now the companies will know what the standards are," he said, "is not really grappling with the legal complexity of the issue."