Originally published: March 7, 2011
Last updated: March 7, 2011 - 1:53pm
[Commentary] There has been much talk lately about the “Facebook revolution” in the Middle East. But the rhetoric oversimplifies a more complicated reality.
The Internet has helped activists from Morocco to Iran organize demonstrations and publicize human rights abuses. The world had a front-row seat at the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions thanks to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This publicity likely helped restrain government crackdowns on protesters. It is important to remember that the Internet, like every sea change in communications technology does not inevitably lead to social progress. It is merely a tool for brave men and women willing to put their lives on the line to improve their lot. Technological advancement also has a downside. The Internet makes it easier for repressive regimes to crack down on dissidents. The Belarusian and Iranian governments have used what Internet expert Evgeny Morozov calls the “digital panopticon” created by social-networking technology to track down and arrest activists. With a few notable exceptions, the technology industry is failing to address serious human rights challenges.
Filtering software produced by U.S. companies like McAfee — recently acquired by Intel — has been used by repressive governments to censor political content on the Internet. Cisco routers are part of the architecture of China’s Great Firewall. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo censor political content. US technology companies allow millions around the world to express themselves more fully and freely. But the industry has a moral obligation to ensure that its products and services do not help repressive governments. If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, Congress must step in.
[Sen Durbin is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights]
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