US tech giants join to protect freedom of speech online

WASHINGTON: United States (US) technology giants Google, Microsoft and Yahoo along with a coalition of human rights and other groups on Tuesday unveiled a code of conduct aimed at safeguarding online freedom of speech and privacy.

The ‘Global Network Initiative,’ bringing together leading companies, human rights organisations, academics and investors, commits the technology firms to “protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users.”

The initiative, which follows criticism that the companies were assisting censorship of the Internet in nations such as China, requires them to narrowly interpret government requests for information or censorship and to fight to minimise co-operation.

The initiative provides a “systematic approach” for participants to “work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards,” the participants said in a statement.

In a statement, Yahoo Co-founder and Chief Executive Jerry Yang welcomed the new code of conduct.

“These principles provide a valuable roadmap for companies like Yahoo operating in markets where freedom of expression and privacy are unfairly restricted,” he said.

“Yahoo was founded on the belief that promoting 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,” Yang said.

Yahoo was thrust into the forefront of the online rights issue after the California company helped Chinese police identify cyber dissidents whose supposed crime was expressing their views online.

China exercises strict control over the Internet, blocking sites linked to Chinese dissidents, the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement, the Tibetan government-in-exile and those with information on the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

A number of US companies, including Microsoft, Cisco, Google and Yahoo, have been hauled before the US Congress in recent years and accused of complicity in building what has been called the “Great Firewall of China.”

Google has been criticised for complying with the Chinese government’s demands to filter Internet searches to eliminate query results regarding topics such as democracy or Tiananmen Square.

Earlier this month, Skype, the online text message and voice service owned by auction giant eBay, acknowledged that its Chinese partner, TOM Online, had been archiving politically sensitive text messages. Microsoft has come under fire for blocking the blog of a prominent Chinese media researcher who posted articles critical of a management purge at the Beijing News daily. Internet firms contend they must comply with China’s laws in order to operate there.


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