By Arshad Mohammed
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged private industry to protect Internet freedoms Thursday, saying it was vital to promote online rights amid restrictions in Russia, Syria and China.
Speaking at a conference on Internet freedom, Clinton said it was "an urgent task" to preserve civil liberties online and argued that corporations can protect their own reputations by thinking twice before doing business with repressive governments.
"It is most urgent, of course, for those around the world whose words are now censored, who are imprisoned because of what they or others have written online, who are blocked from accessing entire categories of Internet content, or who are being tracked by governments seeking to keep them from connecting with one another," she said at the conference, co-hosted by Google Inc. and the Dutch foreign minister.
The use of social networking websites during this year's "Arab Spring" of popular uprisings in the Middle East helped bring down authoritarian governments in Egypt and Tunisia and prompted counter attacks by governments against the Internet.
The Internet remains a battleground in many countries, including in Syria, where Clinton said an anti-government blogger named Anas Al-Marawi was arrested on July 1 after demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power.
In Russia, where observers witnessed ballot-stuffing and other irregularities in Sunday's parliamentary elections, prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny was sentenced to 15 days in jail after taking part in anti-government protests.
Clinton urged high-tech companies to be vigilant about marketing their products to countries that will use them to help governments abuse their citizens' digital rights.
"When companies sell surveillance equipment to the security agency of Syria, or Iran, or, in past times, (former Libyan leader Muammar) Gaddafi, there can be no doubt it will be used to violate rights," she said.
Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal, whose government helped sponsor the conference, said: "This is no time for half-hearted solutions. It is vital that our technology will not become complicit in human rights abuses."
Clinton argued that sanctions alone were not enough, saying private companies also needed to ask themselves whether they should do business in countries with a history of violating online freedoms or whether they can modify their products to keep them from being used by governments to spy on citizens.
"We are joined in a sprit to fight people who want to shut down free speech," said Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt.
"It makes easy sense for a government to say: 'We don't like that. We're going to curtail them. We're going to shut it down. We're going to censor it'," he said, saying the conference was organized "to make the point that this is not right."