Internet firms agree to 'code of conduct' in China

Ahead of the Olympics, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft agree to basic principles of a "code of conduct" for operating in China and other countries that censor Internet use.

Just days before the Olympic torch will reach Beijing, Internet leaders Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft say they are close to an agreement on a code of conduct for doing business in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

Sen. Dick Durbin on Monday released separate letters from the companies, stating they have "reached agreement on the core components of the principles" of the code, as Google put it.

Those components, the letters say, include principles for promoting freedom of expression and privacy, implementation guidelines, and an accountability framework. The specifics of the code are now being reviewed by the individual organizations involved. Google said the companies are working toward "a set of clear and rigorous principles, such that restrictive governments would be unable to ignore or reject these best practices on freedom of expression and the protection of individual privacy."

"This code of conduct would be one important step toward our shared goals of promoting freedom of expression and protecting the privacy of Internet users around the world," Durbin said in a press release.

The companies began work on the code, in conjunction with human rights groups, privacy advocates, and European companies Vodafone and France Telecom, in January 2007. A year earlier, politicians railed against the companies for complying with China's censorship practices. Yahoo was especially criticized for handing over the identity of journalist Shi Tao to Chinese officials, who sentenced the writer to 10 years in prison.

The impending Olympic games have increased questions about Internet censorship in China, especially after Chinese officials tried to block journalists there for the games from accessing certain sites, even after the Chinese government assured reporters they would have full freedom to search the Internet, unlike its citizens.

Google's letter said that the search giant will not provide the Chinese government with "any sensitive personal information regarding American athletes, journalists, and tourists who use the Internet while they are in China during the Olympics other than required by United States law." According to the Yahoo letter, CEO Jerry Yang personally asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bolster diplomatic efforts in the name of human rights, particularly before the Olympics. (The Microsoft letter is viewable here.)

The letters were addressed to Durbin, Chairman of the Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee, and Sen. Tom Coburn, the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, after the senators inquired in a letter dated July 21 about the progress of the code of conduct. The subcommittee held a hearing on the issue in May.

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