October 31, 2006 6:27 AM PST

U.N. blasts Cisco, others on China cooperation

ATHENS, Greece--Delegates to a United Nations summit on Tuesday assailed Google, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Yahoo for cooperating too closely with China, suggesting that new global regulations of free expression might be necessary.

The three-hour session on the second day of the summit returned to long-standing questions that have drawn the attention of human rights workers and the U.S. Congress: Are companies responsible for what customers do with their products? And is it wise to have some international organization adopting regulations governing Internet speech?

Catherine Trautmann, France's former minister of culture and a current Socialist member of the European Parliament, took issue with "market laws that are considered more important than freedom of expression."

Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the left-leaning Association for Progressive Communications, said it is time to "begin to create an international policy and principle framework that stops that from happening." (Such a law already has been proposed in the U.S. Congress.)

But a Cisco executive said the company had not customized any of its routers, which can be configured to block certain Internet addresses, for the Chinese government. "It's the same equipment that we sell in every country around the world in which we sell equipment," said Art Reilly, Cisco's senior director for strategic technology policy. "There is no differentiation."

The heated discussion at the United Nations' Internet Governance Forum--punctuated by claims from the Chinese government that no Net censorship takes place--did more than merely highlight how much at odds technology companies are with their antagonists. It also revealed a continuing disagreement about whether the United Nations or a similar body should set global rules for free speech online.

Paschal Mooney, an Irish politician and delegate to the Council of Europe, called for a global ban on Internet hate speech, meaning remarks that are designed to insult or offend a certain group of people. (In the United States, any such ban would have to comply with the First Amendment's protections of freedom of speech.)

"You would defend free speech unambiguously?" Mooney asked. "Are we to (abandon) all of the case law and all of the experiences we've had over the last 50 years?" The Council of Europe has prepared a treaty that would criminalize "racist or xenophobic acts using computer networks."

Theodoros Roussopoulos, Greece's minister of state for communication policy, said "we have a problem with bloggers who spread lies." (A Greek blogger was reportedly arrested last week for linking to libelous material, but Roussopoulos said he was not familiar with the case.)

Television and newspapers are "governed by a certain code of ethics," Roussopoulos said. "On the Internet, however, if I become a source of information and write anything I want against anybody I want, it's an attack. It's not criticism in the good sense. It is, in fact, libel."

Badly outnumbered
The two representatives of technology companies--Cisco and Microsoft--which were participants in Tuesday's session were badly outnumbered and left on the defensive.

"I don't think that I would accept the accusation that we are colluding," said Fred Tipson, Microsoft's senior-policy counsel. He said "the condition of doing business in a country is to abide by the law in the country."

Vint Cerf, a Google vice president who spoke from the audience, noted that his employer chose not to locate servers for its blogging and e-mail services in China. That lets Google, at least for now, avoid the problem that Yahoo experienced--police seizing information in order to identify and imprison journalists or democracy activists.

"The reason we did not do that is that we did not want to have materials on our servers that the Chinese government could ask us (to), or insist that we, reveal in order to identify individual parties," Cerf said. "So we chose deliberately not to offer certain services in order to protect the interests of the Chinese people."

Jamie Love, director of the Ralph Nader-founded Consumer Project on Technology, said, "I think there's sort of a deep hypocrisy of surprise when these instruments of surveillance are used (by governments). People are shocked when people sell those things as products, and people actually use them in ways that are just completely predictable."

It's hardly clear how international rules governing freedom of speech would work: Would Cisco be barred from selling routers that can block certain Internet addresses, a useful antispam feature? Would the International Telecommunication Union, a U.N. agency, become deeply involved in Internet governance, which was suggested on Monday? (Even on child pornography, different nations have different rules: the U.S. definition covers minors under 18 years old, but Germany's limit is 14 years old.)

A representative of the Iranian government warned on Tuesday against sacrificing security by allowing too much free speech online. A global consensus means first solving "the problems of different understanding of meaning and different application of that meaning, according to the different law of different countries," he said.

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