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Aligning Words and Deeds With Human Rights

The Olympics are well into their second week. Although we’ve seem some inspiring performances from athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Nastia Liukin, it’s sad that these games have been mired in controversy from the beginning: the IOC’s lack of will or ability to hold China to its promise to improve its human rights record as a condition of winning the Olympic bid, China’s violent crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators, ugly protests during the global Olympic torch relay, the apparently underage Chinese gymnasts, and – “dear” to CDT’s heart – the surveillance of Beijing hotel guests’ communications and the Chinese government’s unwillingness to make the Internet totally free of censorship for foreign journalists.

President Bush, though going on to be the guest of Chinese President Hu Jintao, first made it known that the United States still has “deep concerns” about the Chinese government’s human rights record. There is no doubt that U.S. presidents and other government leaders need to be consistently outspoken against the human rights abuses of other countries. But the U.S. can’t just be a leader in words; we must also be a leader in deeds. It’s no secret that other nations look to the U.S. and our Western allies to practically define “human rights” through our policies and actions. Yet President Bush speaks out of both sides of his mouth: decrying the human rights record of the Chinese government while defending, for example, the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and the abridgement of rights of Guantanamo Bay detainees.

In recent weeks, CDT has been fighting to keep the U.S. government from becoming a leader in Internet censorship, doing battle with the Federal Communications Commission and its efforts to censor television and the Internet. We filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the Commission should not be able to fine broadcasters hundreds of thousands of dollars for airing “fleeting expletives” – that is, one-time utterances of curse words – but also that it no longer makes sense from a technological or policy perspective to allow the FCC to censor broadcast content when the First Amendment doesn’t allow such government overreaching in other media.

Moreover, at the same time that the constitutional foundation for the FCC’s 30-year-old broadcast censorship authority is withering, we’re also concerned about the FCC’s recent attempts to branch out into the Internet. We filed comments with the FCC arguing that its proposal to censor a free nationwide wireless Internet access network would be unconstitutional. The FCC justifies both policies by claiming that it’s protecting children. CDT is not an advocate for profanity or pornography, but rather an advocate for free speech and the proper role of the government in private lives, especially when parents have the responsibility and the ability, using technological means, to control their children’s media consumption.

Pulling at people’s heartstrings by using “The Children” as an excuse for exerting government control is precisely what China does when Westerners criticize its media policies. In fact, the vice president of the Beijing Olympic organizing committee, defending China’s Internet censorship during the Olympic games, was quoted as saying, “We promised free access except for a few websites that jeopardize our security and the healthy growth of our youth.” Somehow, U.S. government leaders fail to see that our own government-mandated censorship diminishes our standing to challenge the human rights abuses of other nations, and at the same time increases the risk that repressive regimes will use U.S. policies to justify their own human rights violations. The same Chinese Olympic official further rationalized his country’s actions: “That’s an assessment made by the authorities of which sites are good and which are not good for our youth. It’s like what any other country does.” America’s leaders must no longer speak out of both sides of their mouths – our domestic actions must match our global human rights rhetoric.