Google, Yahoo, Microsoft Put Their Weight Behind Global Plan Against Online Speech Restriction (Updated)

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Yahoo, Microsoft and Google in combination with a group of human rights and public interest organizations have agreed upon a common set of principles to guide their business in countries that restrict free speech and expression. In the past, the three companies have found themselves criticized by rights groups and the US Congress for putting profit over principles and human rights, particularly with regards to China.

Update: the Global Network Initiative website went live today but offers little additional information. It does feature a complete list of participants.

An excerpt from the WSJ article:

Under the new principles, which were crafted over two years, the technology titans promise to protect the personal information of their users wherever they do business and to “narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy,” according to the code. They also commit to scrutinizing a country’s track record of jeopardizing personal information and freedom of expression before launching new businesses in a country and to discussing the risks widely with their executives and board members.

The principles are the starting point for a new effort, called the Global Network Initiative (site is still empty at this point), which commits the companies to “avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression,” according to a final draft of documents obtained by The New York Times.

In addition to laying out the code of conduct, the initiative will provide a non-governmental forum for the companies and human rights groups to jointly resist demands for censorship, and will also establish a system of independent auditors to rate the companies’ conduct. Check out the statement on the Google Blog for more information.

Prominent human rights organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China, have been involved in setting up the guidelines, which was about 18 months in the making. However, the effort is already being criticized by other human rights activists. (Update: also by Amnesty International)

“After two years of effort, they have ended up with so little,” said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA. “It is really very little more than a broad statement of support for a general principle without any concrete backup mechanism to ensure that the guidelines will be followed.”

The World Organization for Human Rights USA was the one which sued Yahoo for giving Chinese officials information that led to the arrest of two journalists. The lawsuit has since been settled for an undisclosed amount. Also interesting to note is the relationship between Yahoo and Alibaba, the leading Chinese internet company which controls the Yahoo brand in China and is approximately 40% owned by Yahoo.

The members of the initiave hope to attract more companies to join. Two European telecommunications companies, France Télécom and Vodafone, are already considering signing up in the near future, and presumably many more will consider after the guidelines go public.