Major companies band together for free speech

Three internet companies and three human rights groups were all adversaries to some degree. However, they're all on the same page now on a global effort to push freedom of expression and privacy on the internet.

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo says it's a step in the right direction and will allow monitors to check on their progress.

The initiative came about as internet based companies drew fire as they complied with local laws in places such as China where freedom of speech and privacy are not guaranteed.

"This is not about the problems of yesterday and today only. This is about the trend of problems and challenges we see from government restriction on free expression and privacy that are going to be growing over the next many years," said Michael Samway, Yahoo's deputy general counsel.

Talks involving the three fiercely competitive companies and human rights groups have been underway for almost two years. Even as Yahoo came under fire by the late Congressman Tom Lantos for having turned over information that led to the arrest of Chinese journalist Shi Tao.

The Global Network Initiative declares that freedom of expression and privacy "should not be restricted by governments." Participating companies will "protect the freedom of expression of their users." And on privacy, the companies "will employ protections with respect to personal information to protect the privacy right of users." To do that, Google says it's not storing user information on servers in countries where they might be compelled to turn over names. The initiative also creates a framework for more aggressive action by the companies.

"What they're designed to do is push the boundaries outward by committing these companies to respect the universal declaration on human rights, to use the courts where necessary to try to vindicate speech rights for the individuals who uses our services, and as I said, to operate in the open," said Andrew McLaughlin, Google's global public policy director.

One of the human rights groups involved in the process warns not to expect this to be an instant success.

"It is still under development, and the real hard work lies ahead in getting the initiative up and running and also getting the monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure that people are actually doing what they've promised to do," said Arvind Ganesan, of Human Rights Watch.

By Wednesday when all of this becomes official, everyone will be watching for reactions from countries, such as China. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo could face repercussions for their stand -- up to, and including, being kicked out.

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