Google, MS and Yahoo Sign Global Network Initiative to Protect User Privacy in Other Countries

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Google, Microsoft and Yahoo have all signed on to the Global Network Initiative, pledging to protect the privacy of their users around the world, including – perhaps particularly – users in countries such as China, where demands that ISPs rat out their users are routinely made.

Readers may recall that in 2005, Chinese dissident Shi Tao was jailed by the Chinese government for writing an anonymous article denouncing the Tiananmen Square Massacre, after Yahoo revealed that Shi Tao was the author of the article. Last year, Shi Tao’s mother sued Yahoo over their actions.

Most recently, it was revealed that the Chinese government is eavesdropping on Skype users, watching and sometimes intercepting their Skype text messages.

Last year Yahoo settled the lawsuit brought by Shi Tao’s mother, and Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang said at that time that “After meeting with the families, it was clear to me what we had to do to make this right for them, for Yahoo, and for the future.”

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While Yahoo did cooperate with Chinese authorities at the time, they also were doing what they believed the law required of them at the time, as they had been responding to a legal demand that they identify Shi Tao.

The purpose of the Global Network Initiative is to ensure that companies are aware of the issues relating to privacy and human rights online, and that they take a responsible stance with respect to requests or demands to give up a user’s private information. It is unknowable whether, had the Global Network Initiative been in placed at the time, Yahoo would have stood up to China’s demand to give up Shi Tao, but it seems likely that now they would stand up to such a demand to whatever extent possible. And informing and empowering an ISP’s position in such a situation is what the Global Network Initiative is all about.

Companies and organizations which sign on to the Global Network Initiative agree to several key principles. These include:

  • Participating companies will respect and protect the freedom of expression of their users by seeking to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on the information available to users and the opportunities for users to create and communicate ideas and information, regardless of frontiers or media of communication.
  • Participating companies will respect and protect the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression, remove content or otherwise limit access to information and ideas in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.
  • Participating companies will employ protections with respect to personal information in all countries where they operate in order to protect the privacy rights of users.
  • Participating companies will respect and protect the privacy rights of users when confronted with government demands, laws or regulations that compromise privacy in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.
  • Participating organizations also agree to inform their board of directors (if any) and employees of these principles, as well as to make best efforts to ensure that – if they themselves don’t have ‘operational control’ of their company presence in another country – that any organization with which they work in that country is aware of and agrees to these principles.

    For more information about the Global Network Initiative, go to the Global Network Initiative website.

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