Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and other Internet companies have reached an agreement in principle that would govern their actions in dealing with China and other countries that restrict Internet freedoms. The companies said the core principles of the voluntary agreement will be announced later this year.
The Internet companies said more than a year ago they were working on a code of conduct after Yahoo, Google and Microsoft came under congressional fire for their conduct in China, including Yahoo's turning over the IP address, log-on history and e-mail contents of dissident Shi Tao. Chinese authorities later arrested Shi and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Yahoo, Google and Microsoft revealed the bare basics of the agreement in Aug. 1 letters to Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who wrote Yahoo, Google and Microsoft July 21 seeking an update on the progress of the code of conduct.
According to the companies, the code of conduct will center on "principles of expression and privacy," implementation of guidelines, and a "governance, accountability and learning framework" to support the principles and provide a system of assessment. Beyond that, the companies provided few details of the agreement.
Pamela S. Pressman, Microsoft corporate vice president for global affairs, said that during the next few months the work of the initiative will be finalizing organizational steps, allowing companies to obtain internal approvals and plan for the organizational commitments necessary to implement the code of conduct.
"We anticipate a more detailed public announcement to launch the initiative sometime this fall," Pressman wrote.
Durbin and Coburn said in their letter that without a code of conduct, Internet companies could be pressured by the Chinese companies to disclose personal data on athletes, journalists and visitors to Beijing's Olympics.
Yahoo, Google and Microsoft did not address that specific issue in their letters to Durbin and Coburn.
"As you made clear in your letter, 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," Michael Samway, vice president and deputy general counsel of Yahoo, said in his letter to Durbin and Coburn.
Samway said Yahoo was "committed to seeing this effort through to a successful conclusion as swiftly as possible."
Google Deputy General Counsel Nicole Wong said in her letter that "Google has established a strong track record of filtering less and providing more transparency than any other search engine in China."
Microsoft said it would respond to any government request for subscriber information only through authorized law enforcement requests following applicable legal processes.
"Where appropriate, we direct foreign governments seeking access to such data to follow international agreements that require established government-to-government procedures," Microsoft wrote. "Microsoft also applies internal risk assessment procedures aimed at protecting user privacy."
Durbin said in a statement that the "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."