Durbin calls for sanction on Web firms that do not promote Internet freedom

Internet companies that fail to take "reasonable steps" to safeguard human rights in foreign countries could face sanctions under a forthcoming bill by Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.).

At a hearing on Tuesday, Durbin pitched the bill as his response to the growing number of U.S. tech firms that have failed to cooperate with congressional lawmakers on promoting Internet freedoms abroad. However, he offered few details as to what his proposed fix might include or when he planned to unveil the legislation.

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The top Democrat's efforts arrive amid increased scrutiny of U.S. Web companies — including Google, Yahoo and Bing — that have willingly censored their content in countries like China, which maintain limits on free expression as conditions of doing businesses. Others lawmakers, however, have targeted firms like McAfee, which Durbin said had developed Web censoring technology similar to that deployed in states that filter online content.

However, few of those companies opted to testify during Tuesday's hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, which Durbin chairs, he stressed during his opening statement.

Facebook and Twitter declined invites last week, and computer makers Hewlett-Packard and Apple opted not to comment on censor technology pre-installed on Chinese machines, according to the senator. McAfee, meanwhile, first accepted the opportunity to testify at Tuesday's hearing, but ultimately declined at the last minute, Durbin added. Google, however, did join.

Consequently, Durbin stressed it was time for Congress to take more forceful action to ensure tech companies did not abandon U.S. values in order to do business abroad.

"The bottom line is this: With a few notable exceptions, the tech industry seems unwilling to regulate itself and unwilling to engage in a dialogue with Congress on ... human rights challenges..." Durbin said.

"Today, I'm announcing I will introduce legislation that will require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, or face civil and criminal liability," he continued.

Durbin provided few specifics of his bill, notably offering little explanation of how companies could "safeguard" human rights, or what the proposed civil or criminal sanctions might be. But he nonetheless pitched the legislation as crucial at a time when an increasing number of companies are trying to control speech on the Internet.

"The tech industry faces difficult challenges when they deal with repressive governments," Durbin said. "But we have a responsibility as the United States ... to ensure American companies are not complicit in violation of free expression."