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Major U.S. Internet companies agree on a code of conduct for operating in repressive countries

August 4, 2008 |  3:12 pm
Chinainterentcafe2

It's been a journey longer than the meandering, months-long trip the Olympic torch is taking to Friday's opening ceremonies in Beijing. But Google, Yahoo and Microsoft said today that they were close to finishing a voluntary code of conduct for doing business in China and other countries that censor the Internet -- a project they started in January 2007.

In letters released by Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, the companies said they have agreed on principles "protecting and advancing the enjoyment of freedom of expression and privacy globally." The letters are very similar, with few details. (You can download a PDF of Google's here, Yahoo's here and Microsoft's here.)

Durbin and Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, held a hearing on the issue in May. They wrote to the companies last month urging them to finish their work before the Olympics open in China to protect information about athletes, journalists and tourists who use the Internet during the games.

The issue of Internet access at the Beijing games flared last week, when the Chinese government blocked access by foreign journalists to some international human rights websites. After complaints, Chinese officials stopped the blocking.

But that's only for journalists. Chinese users (such as those at a Beijing Internet cafe pictured above) still cannot access websites that display information critical of the country's Communist government and face constant monitoring of their Web surfing.

Durbin commended Google, Yahoo and Microsoft on their progress, but said they shouldn't wait ...

... for the code to be finished. In a news release, he said:

While the code of conduct is being finalized, I urge American Internet companies operating in repressive countries to do everything possible to resist censorship and protect user privacy and freedom of expression, especially with the Olympics beginning in China later this week. We must ensure that American companies operating in repressive regimes protect fundamental human rights.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have been on the defensive about their Internet operations in China since Congress held a high-profile hearing on the issue in 2006. Yahoo has faced the most heat. Chief Executive Jerry Yang was pilloried by lawmakers and publicly apologized during a hearing last fall for providing Chinese officials with the the identity of a journalist from his e-mail address in 2004. The journalist, Shi Tao, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for divulging state secrets.

Yahoo stressed that it was not waiting. Michael Samway, the company's vice president and deputy general counsel, noted in its letter that Yahoo had set up a human rights fund to provide assistance to political dissidents and their families, and that Yang had appealed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to increase diplomatic efforts to ensure open access to the Internet.

Amy O'Meara, director of business and human rights for Amnesty International USA, which has been working to help develop the code, echoed Durbin in urging companies to act on their own to preserve Internet freedoms while the details are being hammered out.

"Censorship is still rampant, dissidents are still being arrested and held in detention and none of the companies have announced changes in their operating procedures or policies which would change either of those facts," she said.

The letters from the companies contained few specifics about the code. They all said that the core components were principles on freedom of expression and privacy; guidelines for implementing them; and a "governance, accountability and learning framework."

Joined by European firms Vodafone and France Telecom, the three largest U.S. Internet companies have been developing the code with human rights organizations and privacy groups. The Center for Democracy and Technology and Business for Social Responsibility have helped guide the process.

So what's taking so long? The process has been complicated, in part because the participants wanted more than just a policy to sign on to -- they wanted an "accountability framework" to assure that companies live up to their pledges, said Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. She went on to say:

This entire industry is an industry in motion. It's an industry that’s constantly producing new products and services. Being able to come up with principles and guidelines that gave people direction at the same time that they provided the necessary flexibility for change was a challenge.

There's still more work to be done. Details of the code must be approved by top officials of all the participating companies and organizations, Harris said. But she expects the initiative to be ready for launch this fall -- sometime after the Olympic torch in Beijing has been extinguished.

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Puzzanghera, a Times staff writer, covers tech and media policy from Washington, D.C.

Photo: People surf the Internet at a Beijing Internet cafe in April. Credit: Diego Azubel / European Pressphoto Agency

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