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Google, Microsoft, Yahoo & Others Nearing Completion of Online Human Rights Code

Document is designed to set IT standards for users' rights to privacy, freedom of speech

The group of companies that promised to write an online code of human rights for Internet users in 2006 is close to completing the document.

In a letter to two U.S. senators about the human rights code, Yahoo's top legal executive said earlier this month that the group is "working as swiftly as possible" on the code and gave a rough idea on how it will be implemented.

Back in January 2007, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo led a group of IT companies that promised to "produce a set of principles guiding company behavior when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights." The idea was to create a code of conduct that would help companies do the right things in protecting user privacy and provide a method to resist censorship and jailing of bloggers and political dissidents by governments.

If the code is accepted and widely adopted, it could change some enterprises' privacy policies and make it more difficult for corporations or governments to duck through loopholes in rapidly changing and frequently outdated laws, observers say.

In his letter of Aug. 1, Samway gave an outline of the code's basic principles.

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

The group will not only define the principles, but also a method of verifying compliance, as well the means for holding companies accountable "through a system of independent assessment" if they don't comply, Samway said.

The code appears to focus most heavily on the practice of censoring Internet content, as well as on recent instances of legal or criminal action being taken against bloggers who speak out against their government. However, the more thorny question has to do with the rights of government or corporations to monitor users' online behavior, which is a common practice by both groups today. Samway's letter gave no indication on how the group will codify such practices.

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