US, 13 other countries vow to back online freedoms

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Fourteen countries including the United States vowed Friday to work to promote online freedoms, with an emphasis on helping bloggers who operate under oppressive regimes.

The countries, which also included Britain, France and Canada, endorsed a statement at the end of a two-day conference in the Netherlands saying that their goals included preventing “the misappropriation of technologies for repressive ends, inappropriate requests for personal data for political purposes, and illegitimate blocking of content.”

The conference was inspired in part by the bloggers and social network users who have played a key role in fomenting the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” — and took great risks along the way.

Other countries signing off on the statement came from Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America, but did not include any regimes from the Middle East or the Arab world.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened the Freedom Online conference Thursday with a direct call for companies not to sell surveillance tools to authoritarian regimes.

In an emotional speech Friday, Syrian blogger Amjad Baiazy said his country’s surveillance system was built by Western companies. He said he was arrested and tortured in May for expressing his opinion online, and a friend was arrested as recently as this week for a Facebook posting.

He called on governments to fight for “security of citizens, not corporations or governments.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said the conference had created “a coalition that will share information online and offline on freedom of expression, a coalition that will support individuals particularly operating in oppressive environments in the exercise of human rights … through the Internet.”

Companies and civil liberties groups also attended, including many that already participate in projects with similar views such as the Global Network Initiative and Silicon Valley Standard.

Dutch member of parliament Marietje Schaake echoed Clinton’s call for restraints on selling surveillance technologies, saying that companies “with a reputation to lose” — such as Google, one of the conference’s sponsors — are more likely to heed it.

She said less well-known companies will likely need incentives or laws to restrain them from dealing with autocratic regimes.

She said it was ironic there is also a conference being held this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, aimed at disseminating advanced surveillance techniques.

“We need to get ahead of the curve,” she said. “Some governments curb freedom before the Internet fully arrives there.”

Schaake also slammed the U.S. for the “Stop Online Piracy Act” proposed by Congress, which would require U.S. telecommunications companies to block access to foreign-based websites that infringe U.S. copyrights.

She said this will “give great incentives to governments like China to do the same, “by blocking political speech they don’t approve and arguing that their censorship practices are no different than those in the West.

Google’s director of public policy, Bob Boorstin, said any law that forced companies to review content before publishing it would have dire consequences.

“YouTube would just go dark immediately. It couldn’t function,” he said. Google Inc. owns YouTube.

Among more the tangible outcomes of the conference, the Dutch government pledged euro1 million ($1.3 million) to develop “mesh” networks.

The plan is to create networks of smart phones to operate as a backup system to disseminate information when a government tries to block the Internet or social networks. Rosenthal named Syria, Iran and Zimbabwe as target countries.

The European Union’s digital affairs commissioner, Neelie Kroes, said the E.U. planned a campaign to teach bloggers how to communicate securely and avoid detection.

She said digital dissidents need communication tools that are “simple and ready-made.”

“I want the EU to help develop and distribute these tools,” she said.