March has been a stormy month across the Arab world as the hope for new democracy faces the harsh reality of despots armed with guns, tanks and the tools of censorship.
In Libya, the Gaddafi regime plunged the nation into digital darkness during the first week of March, turning off Internet access to keep Libyans from organizing one another and documenting Gaddafi's crimes for the world to see.
In Bahrain, the kingdom reacted to democracy demonstrators by blacking out websites where locals shared cell phone videos, blocking YouTube pages containing videos of street protests, and taking down a large Facebook group that called for more demonstrations.
It doesn't end there.
According to a new report by the not-for-profit OpenNet Initiative (ONI), Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, UAE and Sudan have joined the ranks of censors, using software to block access to homegrown protest sites.
This crackdown is having a ripple effect across the United States, in ways many might not expect. Much of the censorship technology in use in the Arab world was made by American companies willing to look the other way as regimes use it to smother opposition.
The ONI report fingers several American companies, including Intel-owned McAfee, Inc., San Diego-based Websensce, Inc., and Palo Alto Networks, for selling software that red lists websites and blocks all access.
Last month, I reported on another U.S. company, Narus of Sunnyvale, California, which sold to Egypt and Libya an Internet spying technology that lets state security forces track online and cellphone communications and even target the speaker's whereabouts for arrest.
The Narus report prompted Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee to demand a State Department investigation, the results of which are pending.
In the Senate, Dick Durbin of Illinois slammed the U.S. tech industry for not owning up to the abusive application of their products. He wrote, "If U.S. companies are unwilling to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, Congress must step in."
It's encouraging to hear members of Congress speak out. But curtailing the sale of this technology won't happen until they match words with action.
Rep. Bill Keating of Massachusetts is the only voice on the Hill to pledge to take that next step, proposing legislation that would prevent U.S. trafficking in censorship technology.
"People are losing their lives based on this technology," he said during a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing. In a later statement he said he would introduce legislation "that would provide a national strategy to prevent the use of American technology from being used by human rights abusers."
I'm hopeful we'll see this legislation soon. (You can contact both congressmen Keating and Durbin to encourage them to act, too.)
Freedom of speech and assembly shouldn't end at America's border, or whenever we log on to the Internet. It's time Washington took action against U.S. technology companies that are helping despots silence their people.
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