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Google, Yahoo, MS Devising Code of Conduct

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Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Vodafone quietly disclosed they were working together with human rights organizations, investors and legal experts to develop a code of conduct for technology companies to help protect online free speech and privacy. The move is likely in response to proposed legislation that would be much more restrictive.

The companies have been in talks since last year, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), but did not publicize their efforts. The proposed code of conduct is answer to heated criticisms the companies have faced after certain dealings with China.

Google, MSN, and Yahoo have all agreed to serve up modified search results in China in order to do business there. Yahoo has received the most fire from free speech groups and journalism organizations for the company’s involvement in jailing Internet writer Shi Tao, who received 10 years in prison for leaking sensitive information to journalists in New York.

Yahoo provided the email records after being subpoenaed by the Chinese government, though the company said Chinese officials didn’t divulge the reasoning for the subpoena, nor did Yahoo have the ability to defy Chinese law.

Joining “ethical” investors and academic institutions, the coalition makes up the OpenNet Consensus, which expects to have the code of conduct drawn up by the end of the year.

“Governments around the world are jailing Internet journalists at a growing pace, with 49 bloggers, online editors, and Web-based reporters behind bars at the end of 2006,” said Joel Simon, CPJ executive director.

“Protecting the rights of these journalists to express ideas and exchange information without fear of reprisal is one of the highest priorities for the press freedom community today. We hope the forum will soon agree on a code of conduct that ensures that technology and Internet companies safeguards free speech, and on a mechanism for holding signatories accountable.”

These same companies were identified in Congress by Rep. Chris Smith (D-NJ) as “colluding with dictators to suppress the spread of information and punish pro-democracy advocates.” Smith has introduced the Global Online Freedom Act to address these concerns.

“American companies should not be working hand-in-glove with dictators. By blocking access to information and providing secret police with the technology to monitor dissidents, American IT companies are knowingly and willingly-enabling the oppression of millions of people,” said Smith.

GOFA would:

Prohibit US companies from disclosing to foreign officials of an “Internet Restricting Country” information that personally identifies a particular user except for “legitimate foreign law enforcement purposes;”

Create a private right of action for individuals aggrieved by the disclosure of such personal identification to file suit in any US district court;

Prohibit US internet service providers from blocking online content of US government or US-government financed sites;

Authorize $50 million for a new interagency office within the State Department charged with developing and implementing a global strategy to combat state-sponsored internet jamming by repressive countries;

Require the new Office of Global Internet Freedom to monitor filtered terms; and to work with Internet companies and the non-profit sector to develop a voluntary code of minimum corporate standards related to Internet freedom.

Require Internet companies to disclose to the new Office of Global Internet Freedom the terms they filter and the parameters they must meet in order to do business in Internet Restricting Countries;

Require the President to submit to Congress an annual report designating as an “Internet Restricting Country” any nation that systematically and substantially restrict internet freedom;

Establish civil penalties for businesses (up to $2 million) and individuals (up to $100,000) for violations of the new requirements;

Mandate a feasibility study, by the Department of Commerce, to determine what type of restrictions and safeguards should be imposed on the export of computer equipment which could be used in an Internet Restricting Country to restrict Internet freedom.

However, critics say the proposed legislation goes a bit overboard, unduly restricting the ability to business overseas, says Harvard Law’s John Palfrey.

GOFA has noble ends, but is not the best means. The proposed bill would make it nearly impossible for US technology firms to compete in markets like China. If an industry code of conduct were to emerge that has real bite to it, and where NGOs and investors and academics are on hand to ensure that signatory companies live up to it, the results could be far better.


In all, 134 have been imprisoned, with China leading the world in jailed journalists with 31. According to CPJ’s site, the United States currently has one journalist in jail, and another in detention at Guantanamo Bay.

Members of the coalition include Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, Boston Common Asset Management, Business for Social Responsibility, Calvert Group, Center for Democracy and Technology, Committee to Protect Journalists, Domini Social Investments LLC, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Enterprise Privacy Group, F&C Asset Management, Google, Inc., Human Rights First, Human Rights in China, Human Rights Watch, International Business Leaders Forum, International Council on Human Rights Policy, Microsoft, Reporters Without Borders, Trillium Asset Management, United Nations Special Representative to the Secretary-General on business & human rights, University of California, Berkeley School of Law-Boalt Hall, Vodafone, and Yahoo! Inc.

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