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GOOG, YHOO, MSFT Set Rules of Engagement for Iron-Fist Countries

Something like that

Tech titans Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have agreed upon a common set of principles to guide business dealings in countries that restrict free speech and expression.

The search and ad giants have previously been criticized for complying with China's censorship of certain material published online.

In 2006, Google agreed to filter search results on topics like Falun Gong, democracy, or Tiananmen Square (about 2% of its total index) on the Chinese version of its site. Microsoft was attacked blocking the blog of a Chinese Media researcher who posted articles critical of a management purge at the Beijing News Daily (via BBC). And in 2005, Yahoo turned in emails that led to the imprisonment of two Chinese journalists. (Yahoo later settled damages, and Jerry Yang issued a formal apology to the mother of one of the journalists.)

The prepared guidelines, called the Global Network Initiative, aims to avoid government interference with users given limited human rights. They took two years for the companies, in partnership with different human rights and journalist protection groups, to put together.

In them, tech companies are admonished to consider human rights issues when they decide which countries to operate in and what services to offer. They also urge them to train employees and develop both whistle-blowing and conflict resolution mechanisms. Finally, companies are asked to be transparent about how users' private data will be shared, and to "narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy," reports the Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

This means requiring written requests for information, along with names and titles of authorizing officers. While this may not fully protect the personal information of users, it sets the groundwork for "a shared bottom-up strategy and mechanisms for advancing and protecting human rights in digital media," said Deirdre K. Mulligan, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information.

Enforcing the rules may be challenging. The document contains some practical "application guidance," but there are no specific rules on where, for example, to host servers, because fast-changing technology would rapidly make such limitations irrelevant, explained WSJ's China Journal blog.

Other leading internet players, including e-commerce giants eBay and Amazon, were not involved in the formation of these guidelines but may adopt them, Search Engine Land said.

In anticipation of the Beijing Olympics this year, a NJ Congressman — along with Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights watch and Amnesty International — pushed an act that would have made it a crime for US companies to turn over personal information to governments in "Internet-restricting countries."

Critics called it an overly simplistic approach to the problem of government censorship, wrote Wired. The Electronic Frontier Foundation complained that it unfairly put tech companies in the midst of a tug-of-war between governments.


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