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Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! have joined forces with IFEX members the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Human Rights Watch, the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) and others to sign a global code of conduct promising to combat online censorship and protect user privacy on the Internet.

The Global Network Initiative, drawn up by a broad coalition of Internet companies, rights groups, academics and investors, follows criticism that companies were assisting governments in countries like China to censor the Internet.

Its code of conduct, or "principles", seeks to advance user rights to free expression and privacy, especially when faced with government demands for censorship and disclosure of users' personal information.

"These principles provide a clear road map where none existed before - and they are not simply aspirational, they are concrete," said CPJ.

Under the new principles, which were crafted over two years, participating companies promise to protect the personal information of their users wherever they do business and to "narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy."

They also commit to looking at the human rights climate in a country before concluding business deals and to ensuring their employees and partners do the same.

"These principles assist the press and any other citizens who seek to inform and influence others by ensuring a strong united front against the government persecution and censorship that is often effected against the lone dissenter," said WPFC.

The impetus for such an agreement follows the trend of governments increasingly turning new technologies into tools of control and repression - often with the complicity of well-known ICT companies. According to CPJ, one in three journalists imprisoned today worked online.

Google has been accused of complying with Chinese government demands to filter Internet search results regarding topics such as democracy or Tiananmen Square. Microsoft has come under attack for blocking blogs of Chinese users who criticised the government. Last month, Canadian researchers uncovered that a Skype joint venture in China monitored users' communications.

Shi Tao, a reporter accused of leaking state secrets for sending an email about Chinese media restrictions of the Tiananmen Square massacre, was jailed for 10 years after Yahoo! gave the Chinese government his personal information. According to RSF, at least four cyber-dissidents have been jailed because of user information supplied by Yahoo! to the Chinese authorities.

Yahoo! co-founder and CEO Jerry Yang welcomed the new code of conduct. He said, "These principles provide a valuable roadmap for companies like Yahoo! operating in markets where freedom of expression and privacy are unfairly restricted.

"Yahoo! was founded on the belief that promoting access to information can enrich people's lives and the principles we unveiled today reflect our determination that our actions match our values around the world," he added.

The plan has yet to receive the support of Internet companies in China and other countries whose policies it implicitly attacks.

The effort is seen by some as not going far enough. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently announced its decision to withdraw from the discussions and to not endorse the principles. RSF said it was "concerned by several loopholes and weak language on the central points that may threaten the very implementation of these principles and justify the status quo."

RSF points out that local law remains the reference even if it violates human rights standards, and issues related to how and who will monitor the companies' compliance have yet to be addressed. "Under these principles, another Shi Tao case is still possible," said RSF.

Instead, RSF has focused its energy on getting the Global Online Freedom Act passed. A bill introduced in the U.S. in February 2006 and in the EU earlier this year, the act bans companies from locating servers containing personal data in repressive countries, and makes it a crime for countries to sell surveillance and Internet-blocking technology to authoritarian governments. The U.S. act awaits a vote, while the EU version was only just initiated in July.

IFEX members involved in the initiative recognise it is only a first step. "While CPJ realises that this is not a silver bullet that will guarantee there will be no more Shi Taos, we support and are a part of the Global Network Initiative because we believe we can achieve more working together than individually," said CPJ.

"The real test will be in its implementation, and whether mandatory measures are included to protect Internet users," said Human Rights Watch.

The Global Network Initiative is actively recruiting additional members. See:

Also visit these links:
- CPJ:
- Human Rights Watch:
- RSF:
(Photo: Shi Tao's jailing led to criticism of Yahoo! business practices in China)

(5 November 2008)

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