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US tech giants join move to protect freedom of speech online

by Staff Writers
San Francisco (AFP) Oct 28, 2008
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo on Tuesday unveiled a code of conduct aimed at defending online freedoms against attacks by oppressive regimes in China, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

A "Global Network Initiative," bringing together Internet companies, human rights organizations, academics and investors, commits the technology firms to "protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users."

The initiative, which follows criticism the firms were assisting censorship of the Internet in nations such as China, requires them to narrowly interpret government requests for information or censorship and to minimize cooperation.

Attacks on Internet freedom and privacy are on the rise worldwide and the GNI is a budding alliance of technology companies united in response to what are seen as unreasonable requests by governments, according to its founders.

"It's a global phenomenon; it is not just China," said Robert Mahoney, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"In the Middle East and North Africa there is a lot of repression, particularly of journalists. We believe that by acting together we have a better way to change the behavior of governments."

While China is "perhaps the most sophisticated regime" when it comes to Internet snooping and censorship its tactics are spreading, according to Colin Maclay, acting director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

"We are seeing those practices adopted in other countries," Maclay said.

"This is a trend we need to combat and it is global in scale. As more people get online the problem is going to get worse, so we need to have a network solution to address these problems."

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."

GNI firms promise to reveal attempts by governments to pressure them into violating worldwide standards regarding online privacy or access to information.

"These principles are not going to be a silver bullet, but the most important point for me is to provide transparency," said Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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 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 criticized for complying with 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.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the initiative was a "first step" but does not go far enough in protecting Internet freedoms in oppressive countries.

The France-based group pulled out of talks with GNI founders last month and opted not to endorse the principles, which it contends have "loopholes and weak language" that leave room for abuses.

"Under these principles, another Shi Tao case is still possible," RSF said, referring to the Chinese reporter jailed after information provided by Yahoo helped Chinese authorities link him to online writings.

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China tells Microsoft to rethink 'black-out' anti-piracy tactics: report
Beijing (AFP) Oct 28, 2008
China has told US software giant Microsoft to reconsider controversial new anti-piracy tools that cause computer screens to turn black if a pirated program is identified, state media reported.

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