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Tech giants near agreement on human rights code

Some of the biggest technology and internet companies in the world have agreed a set of standards to protect human rights online that they hope the whole IT industry will adopt. The move could affect companies' privacy policies worldwide.20 Aug 2008

Google, Microsoft, Vodafone, Yahoo! and others agreed 18 months ago to try to create a code of conduct for companies who wanted to behave in a way that respected human rights.

Technology companies have faced increasing scrutiny over the impact of their businesses and actions on users in countries where they have been said to be complicit in the curtailing of social and political freedoms.

Yahoo! faced severe criticism when it handed user information to Chinese authorities who then identified and jailed dissident bloggers. Google has faced enduring criticism about the way it handles the massive amounts of data it gathers on users, and about reported government censorship of search results in China.

Those companies and others are now close to finalising a code of conduct for companies under the banner 'ICT Initiative on Freedom of Expression and Privacy'.

Yahoo!'s deputy general counsel Michael Samway has written to two US Senators who had enquired about the progress of the group outlining the basics of the code of conduct. He said that they will outline principles on freedom of expression and privacy.

"[These will] provide direction and guidance to the ICT industry and its stakeholders in protecting and advancing the enjoyment of freedom of expression and privacy globally," he wrote. "The Principles describe key commitments in the following areas: Freedom of Expression; Privacy; Responsible Company Decision Making; Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration; Governance, Accountability & Transparency."

"Events around the world make a code of conduct not just ideal but essential, as companies and others work to ensure the protection of basic human rights for citizens across the globe," he wrote.

"We all believe the initiative will represent a meaningful, integrated, and sustainable approach to addressing the root causes of the challenges to Internet freedom, and will help the Internet, communications, and technology (lCT) sector protect and advance the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy," wrote Samway.

The Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) helped to co-ordinate the original plans for a code of conduct. Its executive director Leslie Harris explained the problem at the time.

"Technology companies have played a vital role building the economy and providing tools important for democratic reform in developing countries. But many governments have found ways to turn technology against their citizens – monitoring legitimate online activities and censoring democratic material," Harris said. "It is vital that we identify solutions that preserve the enormous democratic value provided by technological development, while at the same time protecting the human rights and civil liberties of those who stand to benefit from that expansion."

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