Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Internet giants sign up to fight online censorship

January 2009

Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have signed up to principles whereby they agree to offer better protection for online freedom of speech.

The voluntary Global Network Initiative principles, devised with non-governmental organizations and investors, commit signatories to resist, whenever possible, government demands for censorship of information or the surrender of data.

Participating companies must ‘respect and protect’ their users’ freedom of expression around the world by trying to ‘avoid or minimize’ government restrictions – such as limits on internet searches, blogs and interactive websites.

Signatories are expected to work together, and with NGOs, to solve any problems they encounter, and this may include lobbying governments to change the law. All signatories will undergo regular independent checks on whether they are implementing the principles.  

Monitoring of online activity by internet search and service providers has become a prominent corporate responsibility issue in recent years, after global criticism of Yahoo for handing over details of online dissidents to the Chinese authorities and allegations that Google has allowed some internet searches in China to be filtered. Microsoft has come under fire for blocking the blog of a prominent Chinese media researcher.

Supporting guidelines to the principles recommend steps companies should take when facing demands to restrict online freedom of speech, such as seeking written clarification of the legal basis of any request, mounting court challenges, and enlisting the support of human rights groups to put pressure on governments.

However, the guidelines accept there is a limit to what can be achieved, and that ‘it is neither practical nor desirable for participating companies to challenge in all cases’. Instead, they say companies should select cases to fight based on the potential benefit to freedom of expression, cost, the likelihood of success, the severity of the case, how representative it is, and whether it is part of a wider trend.

A total of 21 NGOs and investors, including Calvert Group, F&C Asset Management, Human Rights Watch and the World Press Freedom Committee, have backed the principles and pledged to assist signatory companies if necessary.

At present only Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have signed up from the corporate sector, but more may follow. France Telecom and Vodafone are said to be considering support.

Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s global public policy director, said he did not expect the principles to solve all problems overnight, but believed they indicated that ‘a wide range of groups working together can achieve much more than one company acting alone’.

However, some NGOs believe the principles will be ineffective. ‘They are very little more than a broad statement of support for a general principle without any concrete back-up mechanism to ensure that the guidelines will be followed,’ said Morton Sklar, executive director for the World Organization for Human Rights USA.

Global Network Initiative | Global | Human rights

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