Internet Freedom: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo Near Agreement

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are "close to agreement" on a code of conduct for Internet technology companies that are doing business in countries restricting citizen dissent and speech rights, according to an announcement issued Monday by United States Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL.

Durbin, who chairs the Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, part of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, held hearings on the matter May 20. The event drew executive testimonies from the three companies, along with Cisco Systems.

A catalyzing event that may have led to the hearings was the case of Hu Jia, a Chinese blogger sentenced to more than three years in prison in China for criticizing its human rights record. Information supplied by Yahoo led to Hu Jia's imprisonment. Durbin, in his opening remarks at the hearing, said that four people have been jailed in China based on information supplied by Yahoo.

In response to requests from Durbin and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, the companies and nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, are currently considering a voluntary code of conduct and have been for about 20 months. No date for an agreement has yet been specified, but a spokesperson for Senator Durbin's office, Max Fleishman, suggested that it might happen in the fall.

"They've agreed in principle to a set code of conduct," Fleishman said. "This is the three Internet groups we named directly--Google, Yahoo and Microsoft--in addition to a large number of other stakeholders, human rights groups, NGOs, other technology firms. They've all agreed in principle to this code. We don't anticipate the final agreement and the final language of this code to be finished for another few weeks--perhaps I would estimate it sometime in September."

That date seems to match a statement from Pamela S. Passman, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Global Corporate Affairs, who described Microsoft's work on a so-called "Information, Communications and Technology Initiative."

"Over the next few months, the Initiative will be finalizing organizational steps.... We anticipate a more detailed public announcement to launch the Initiative sometime this fall," Passman wrote in a letter dated July 29, 2008 to Sens. Durbin and Coburn.

The code-of-conduct document currently isn't publicly available. However, it is supposed to have "three critical features," according to hearing testimony by Arvind Ganesan, director of Human Rights Watch's business and human rights program. Those features include:

  • "A strong but reasonable code of conduct";
  • "An effective but not overly bureaucratic governance process"; and
  • "Independent monitoring of companies that sign on."

Ganesan, in his May testimony, said that "some companies continue to be very resistant to the idea of independent monitoring." He particularly cited Google as one of them, noting that two shareholder proposals on a board committee on human rights were voted down on May 8.

Google isn't alone there. Yahoo's shareholders, meeting this month, voted against "a proposal relating to Internet censorship" and defeated an amendment "to establish a Board committee on human rights," according to a Yahoo-issued press release.

Despite such potential resistance, an independent audit organization could still take shape, according to Danny O'Brien, international outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is one of the NGOs involved in the matter.

"There'll be a separate organization that will independently audit and manage the agreement. They will be in charge of assurance," O'Brien stated in an e-mailed response on Tuesday.

Yahoo has achieved "poster child" status on this issue with its disclosure of information to the Chinese government, according Ganesan. However, he cited a number of other countries where Internet use led to disclosures resulting in censorship and oppression, including in Egypt, Russia, Burma and Syria. Criticisms have also been heaped on the other Internet technology companies involved in the code-of-conduct negotiations.

Cisco has been accused of building "China's Great Firewall." The company is said to have trained Chinese authorities to use its router equipment for Internet monitoring and control under a so-called "Golden Shield Project." However, the company denied the claim, as described by Mark Chandler Cisco's vice president of legal services, general counsel and secretary, in the Senate hearing testimony.

Google has been accused of creating Google.cn, an Internet search portal that caters to the Chinese government's censorship policies. The site apparently tells users when information has been censored.

Microsoft is said to remove blogs at the request of oppressive governments, according to Durbin. Passman's letter to Durbin and Coburn stated that Microsoft will adhere to "existing company policy" in which "Microsoft will block access to Windows Live Spaces content only where we receive a legally binding notice from a government indicating that the material violates local laws, or if the content violates our terms of use."

Would the code of conduct put a stop to such behavior? O'Brien held out some hope.

"There are some limits to what the companies can practically do, and what they say are willing to agree to do in the face of a government demand," O'Brien stated. "Our hope is that a code of conduct like this will embolden any company to think first when faced with a government demand that contradicts international human rights agreements."

The May 20 testimonies of the companies before the Durbin Senate committee hearing can be accessed here.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor, Enterprise Group, at 1105 Media Inc.

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