Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo have announced they have signed on as founding members of the Global Network Initiative—along with groups like HUman Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights First—in an effort to define a consistent set of principles on how the companies will do business in nations that restrict free speech and expression. The principles have been crafted over a period of almost two years, and come in the wake of all three companies enduring major criticism for their actions and policies in China and other countries which place severe limits on citizens’ online activities and speech. Yahoo, in particular, has been singled out for providing account information to Chinese authorities which has been used to jail pro-democracy bloggers and other activists.
“These principles provide a valuable roadmap for companies like Yahoo operating in markets where freedom of expression and privacy are unfairly restricted,” said Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, in a statement “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.”
The principles have the companies promising to protect information about their users in all countries where they do business, as well as to narrowly interpret any government demands for information that would compromise user privacy. The companies will also evaluate government requests for information or censorship against international standards, assess human rights risks when entering new markets or introducing new products, and provide greater transparency in their processes. All three companies have agreed to have their efforts monitored by independent experts, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“This Initiative is by no means a silver bullet or the last word, but it does represent a concrete step toward promoting freedom of expression and protecting users’ privacy in the 60th anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Google’s director of public policy and government affairs Andrew McLaughlin, in a statement. “Now we’re actively recruiting more companies and groups to join the Initiative and advance these critical human rights around the world.”