Net giants unveil web rights code
Three of the world's leading internet companies have agreed on a code of conduct to help determine the kind of information they should be sharing with governments and protect the rights of individuals. The code, drawn up Google Inc, Microsoft Corp and Yahoo Inc aims to reduce the scope of government requests that appear to violate free speech and other human rights principles. Human rights groups, academics and investors were also consulted. Critics have welcomed the move as a good "first step", but say the guidelines contain many loopholes and avoid specifics. The "Global Network Initiative" (GNI) unveiled in New York on Tuesday, follows criticism that Google, Microsoft and Yahoo - among others - have assisted censorship of the internet especially in China, Africa and the Middle East. According to the authors, the guidelines provide a "systematic approach" for participants to "work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards". The guidelines commit technology firms to "protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users" by taking a narrow interpretation of government requests for information or censorship, and to minimise cooperation. Firms are also required to seek written requests along with the names and titles of the authorising government officer.
'Crucial step': Leslie Harris, head of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the main groups behind the initiative, said the companies agreed to consider rights issues before deciding where and how to set up shop. Bob Boorstin, Google's director of policy communications, said the release of the GNI was a "crucial step". "The coming together of all these diverse companies and groups is more likely to bring change in government policies than any one company working by itself," he said. Much recent attention has focused on China's regulation of the internet and the close monitoring by Chinese authorities of any online dissent and political activity. But Colin Maclay, acting director of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society said many of the tactics used in China were spreading to other countries. "This is a trend we need to combat and it is global in scale," he said.
"As more people get online the problem is going to get worse, so we need to have a network solution to address these problems." Sanctions: But sceptics say it is not clear under the GNI what practices, if any, will change because it does not ban any specific conduct while many of the guidelines are vague and subject to each company's discretion. The GNI is open for other companies to join and calls for the creation of an oversight organisation to review corporate practices. However the document contains no timeline or details on any sanctions that companies might face. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders pulled out of talks with GNI founders last month and opted not to endore the guidelines, saying they contained "loopholes and weak language". On Tuesday the group welcomed what it said was a "first step" but said the guidelines did not go far enough in protecting online freedoms. Speaking to the Associated Press, Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organisation for Human Rights USA, praised the fact that major internet companies recognised the "huge problem". But he added "what's disappointing is that the amount of effort … didn't produce something more substantial." Sklar was among a group of activists who sued Yahoo in 2007 for giving Chinese authorities information that led to the arrest and subsequent jailing of two journalists. The lawsuit has since been settled for an undisclosed sum. Yahoo and its founder, Jerry Yang, faced harsh criticism from a US congressional committee over its handling of the case, with one congressman labelling Yang a moral "pygmy" for cooperating with Chinese authorities. Google says it has so far refrained from offering e-mail and blogging services in China saying it wanted to avoid being in a position where it might have to hand over user communication.
But the search giant's founder, Sergey Brin, has defended the decision to censor Google search results in China to comply with government regulations, saying that having access to an abbreviated version is better than being blocked from a full version.