Tech Giants Ready Policy for Repressive Regimes

China

Top Web companies have reached a tentative agreement with human-rights organizations and other groups on a voluntary code of conduct governing Internet operations in countries where Internet freedom is curtailed.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, praised Microsoft, Yahoo and Google for the letters each submitted saying that they have agreed in principle on the global code of conduct to promote human rights and Internet freedom.

“This code of conduct would be one important step toward our shared goals of promoting freedom of expression and protecting the privacy of Internet users around the world,” Durbin said in a statement.

In May, Durbin chaired a hearing on global Internet freedom where representatives from the three tech companies described their operations in repressive regimes. The recent wave of letters came in response to Durbin’s request last month that the companies provide him with a status update.

The latest signs of progress on crafting an Internet policy to address the long-simmering issue of companies operating in repressive nations comes as the world’s spotlight focuses on China, where the Olympic Games begin Friday in Beijing.

Many reporters have already complained that certain sites have been blocked. A minor scandal broke out last week when the top press official for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suggested in an interview that the group had struck a deal with China to permit Internet restrictions, after promising for years that accredited media would have full access.

Critics pounced on the organization for what appeared to be a tacit endorsement of censorship, and the IOC issued a statement yesterday saying the official’s comments had been misunderstood and declaring, “There has been no deal whatsoever to accept ‘restrictions.'”

Promoting Internet freedom and privacy

In their letters, the tech companies described three pillars of the code of conduct they expect to be finalized by the coalition. Their aim is to create a unified front of Internet, communications and technology (ICT) stakeholders to promote Internet freedom and privacy around the world.

Next page: Initiative on Freedom of Expression and Privacy

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The group, dubbed the “ICT Initiative on Freedom of Expression and Privacy,” is reviewing the specifics of an agreement whose core components include implementation guidelines, a governance and accountability framework and a set of operating principles such as freedom, privacy and transparency.

A Yahoo spokeswoman told InternetNews.com that she expected the code of conduct to be finalized within the coming weeks.

The three companies who drew praise from the senator have not always been favorites on the Hill, particularly when it comes to their policies in countries like China.

Under fire for collaboration

Each of the companies has come under fire for working with the Chinese government to censor Web sites or silence critics.

Last Friday at Yahoo’s annual shareholders’ meeting, a representative from Amnesty International criticized the company for its role in the jailing of two Chinese reporters.

“I think Yahoo is a leader in Internet human rights efforts,” CEO Jerry Yang responded, noting that he had been personally involved with the dissidents’ families.

Amnesty did not respond to a request for comment by press time, and it was not immediately clear if it is participating in the initiative.

In his comments on the letters, Durbin appealed to other companies to join in the spirit of the initiative.

“While the code of conduct is being finalized, I urge American Internet companies operating in repressive countries to do everything possible to resist censorship and protect user privacy and freedom of expression, especially with the Olympics beginning in China later this week,” he said. “We must ensure that American companies operating in repressive regimes protect fundamental human rights.”

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