WASHINGTON – Free speech advocates are frustrated with a host of American companies they say have been collaborating with oppressive regimes in countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to help them filter and monitor the Internet activity of their citizens.
Big technology names like Microsoft, Yahoo! and Cisco Systems have been criticized roundly in recent years for providing foreign governments with the tools they need to crack down on Internet use, but critics say they have not been able to do much more than complain.
"These companies' lack of ethics is extremely worrisome," said Lucie Morillon, the Washington representative of Reporters Without Borders, an international advocacy group for journalists that monitors government repression of the Internet worldwide, documenting dissidents charged with breaking their country's Internet laws. For instance, the organization reports that an estimated 60 "cyber-dissidents" are in Chinese jails today.
"It's the role of watchdog organizations like ours — and any citizen who is willing —to let these companies know that this is a matter of human rights," Morillon said. "Write to these companies and make them feel bad."
Critics last month blasted Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, when it acknowledged that it was working with the Chinese government to censor its new Chinese-language Web portal and new free Web log tool, MSN Spaces.
In addition to the vigilant filtering of content transmitted through Web sites, e-mail, message boards, chat rooms and blogs, the Communist government in Beijing announced in June that everyone in China publishing a blog would have to register it with the government by the end of the month.
Already, anyone who opens a Web account in China must register it with police, according to the Open Net Initiative, a collaborative effort by the University of Toronto, Harvard University and the University of Cambridge.
"China's Internet filtering regime is the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world," ONI authors declared in a recent report on China. "The implications of this distorted online information environment for China's users are profound, and disturbing."
According to the ONI, about 15 to 20 nations across the globe are actively filtering their citizens' Internet access. In June, the group announced that Iran's filtering efforts are reaching the sophisticated status of China.
"Iran is also one of a growing number of countries, particularly in the Middle East region, that rely upon commercial software developed by for-profit United States companies to carry out the core of its filtering regime," ONI's report on Iran reads. "In effect, Iran outsources many of the decisions for what its citizens can access on the Internet to a United States company, which in turn profits from its complicity in such a regime."
ONI reported that Iran relies on filtering software designed by U.S.-based Secure Computing, called "SmartFilter." It helps block a range of banned words, topics and images – most of which Tehran says contradict the country's strict Muslim beliefs.
Unlike China, selling technology to Iran is illegal because of U.S. sanctions. David Burt, spokesman for Secure Computing, said that the big Iranian Internet service providers, which are controlled by the government, are using SmartFilter illegally.
"We have no contracts with any ISPs in Iran. A couple of the biggest ones are illegally using our software," said Burt. "I think our options of going after these foreign companies are limited."
But Secure Computing legally provides its software to other countries that filter Internet content, including Saudi Arabia. "We sell to ISPs all over the world," acknowledged Burt. "It's really up to the customer on how they use the product."
Representatives from Nortel and Cisco said they do not specifically design their technology for regimes like China to repress Internet access. They say they cannot control the use of the technology once it is enabled. For instance, the firewall that Cisco designed to combat viruses can also be used to block political content that the government does not like.
"Cisco has been and will continue to be a key driver of Internet growth worldwide," said spokesman John Earnhardt. "Cisco Systems has not specially designed any products for any government, or any regional market, to block or filter content. The products that Cisco Systems sells in the U.S., China, India, Pakistan, France, Mexico, etc. are the same products that we sell worldwide."
The fact that U.S. companies like Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems have been silent on what they consider the misuse of their technology by governments creating back doors into monitoring Internet use and filtering capabilities, has angered many.
"I think that companies chartered in free countries ought to ask the question, 'What is our technology being used for in authoritarian [countries], and is it a purpose that we want to be behind?'" said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and assistant professor of law at Harvard University.
Dick D'Amato, chairman of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which has held hearings on the Chinese Internet filtering issue, called the companies' explanations a "copout."
"They know what's being done with [the technology]," he said. "They need to be held accountable for what they are doing."
Western companies providing technology to authoritarian governments say that playing by the rules of the host country is the price they pay for doing business there.
"MSN (Microsoft Network) abides by the laws and regulations of each country in which it operates," an MSN spokesperson told FOXNews.com.
Yahoo! made a similar argument two years ago, and continues to do so as critics complain that the regime censors its Yahoo! China portal.
"Just like any other global company, Yahoo! must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based," Yahoo! said in a statement to FOXNews.com.
But the watchdogs don’t buy it – especially, they say, when the Chinese government prohibits any political dissent, even to the point of blocking out searches that include words like "democracy," as well as international news sites of which the government does not approve.
D'Amato said the commission, which reports to Congress, hopes to put pressure on these companies by bringing them in for hearings, soon.
"I'm not so sure they'll come," he said. "They're running for cover."