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Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo Unveil Human Rights Guidelines

Under pressure from advocacy groups, the Internet companies have partnered to promote free speech on the Web.
Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft have launched an initiative to help protect free expression, privacy, and human rights.

The companies have spent two years working with a coalition of communications technology companies, human rights organizations, academics, investors, and IT leaders to address issues that tech vendors face as their international reach broadens. The Global Network Initiative, launched Tuesday, provides guidelines for dealing with laws and policies that interfere with privacy and free speech.

"Yahoo was founded on the belief that access to information can enrich people's lives, and the principles we unveil today reflect our determination that our actions match our values around the world," Jerry Yang, Yahoo CEO and co-founder, said in a statement. "These principles provide a valuable roadmap for companies like Yahoo operating in markets where freedom of expression and privacy are unfairly restricted. Through the collective efforts of industry, advocates, and government we will continue to see technology and the Internet as a way to improve people's lives."

Yahoo helped launch the initiative after becoming one of several technology companies criticized for how they deal with restrictions on speech in foreign countries. Yahoo was accused of giving the Chinese government information about users that led to the jailing of dissidents. Google has been criticized for filtering search results to comply with demands from the Chinese government. MSN and Yahoo also filter search results to comply with Chinese government restrictions.

The companies are in a difficult position as they attempt to tap into a huge user base abroad, while also complying with requirements for doing business in restrictive nations.

Michael Samway, Yahoo VP and deputy general counsel, said that governments have an obligation to protect their own citizens' rights. GNI members will engage with governments to advocate for change among those that restrict expression and fail to protect privacy, he said.

GNI members said they commit to protect freedom of expression and privacy, partner with others for collective governance and accountability, and spread their objectives around the globe. They agreed to require governments to put information requests in writing and to interpret those requests as narrowly as possible.

European participants include France Telecom and Vodafone.

Although the guidelines target companies providing communications, U.S. telecommunications providers AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint Nextel have not joined the coalition. Those companies have been accused in several lawsuits of overstepping their bounds and violating customers' privacy when they cooperated with the federal government's NSA surveillance program.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights China, Business for Social Responsibility, the Calvert Group, and Harvard University's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society also backed the guidelines, which will be posted when the GNI Web site goes live Wednesday.

The Center for Democracy & Technology also supported the effort as part of a larger push to get private companies and the U.S. Congress to promote Internet freedom as an integral part of protecting human rights and advancing foreign policy. The CDT has called on the U.S. government to enforce global trade standards, create an Office of Global Internet Freedom within the State Department, list Internet restricting companies annually, and create minimum standards for online freedom.

The CDT wants standards to include the protection of personally identifiable information, as well as the integrity of that information. Finally, the CDT called for transparency of search engine filtering and censorship, investigation of technologies used for surveillance and suppression of speech, and the use of export controls to curb suppression and surveillance.