Google, Yahoo and Microsoft area teaming up with human rights groups to develop a code of practice for protecting free speech from government intrusion. It’s a response to intense criticism of the firms for cooperating with the Chinese government to censor search results and provide information about political dissidents.
The code, which is set for a formal launch tomorrow, doesn’t outright ban aiding censorship, likely because the firms argue that doing so would mean pulling out of some countries altogether; they believe its better to give internet users limited access rather than none at all.
Instead, the firms will commit to “narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy”. In other words, they’ll do the bare minimum necessary to comply with restrictive laws.
The code also calls for firms to have an internal debate at executive board level before launching businesses in a new country that has laws restricting free speech.
It’s questionable how much practical difference the code will make. The Wall Street Journal points out that it doesn’t cover some steps firms could take to minimize privacy violations such as locating all servers in countries with ethically acceptable policies. The idea seems to be more about internet firms being more publicly accountable (the code calls for independent audits) so that they are shamed into changing behavior which the public finds unacceptable.
The code is backed by several human rights groups and journalism protection bodies, and there’s talk of European Internet firms signing up to the code, known as the Global Network Initiative.
The biggest problem is likely to come where firms work with local companies who won’t be covered by the code, such as in the recent scandal where the Chinese government was able to censor messages sent by users of a joint deal between Skype and Hong Kong firm TOM-Online. (Skype’s owner eBay is yet to sign up to the code but says it is looking at the details.)