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Google, Yahoo! commit to ethical code

Human rights code of conduct to be drawn up

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Some of technology's biggest names are joining together to create a code of conduct to protect freedom of expression online. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Vodafone will create a human rights charter along with academics and social groups.

The move may counter the heavy criticism which Yahoo! and Google in particular have faced over their practices in politically oppressive regimes such as China. Yahoo! helped to identify a journalist in China who was later arrested and convicted for emailing dissident comments to the US, according to the court papers in that man's trial.

Google has also faced opposition to its practices in China. The company, whose famous corporate motto is "don't be evil", has provided China with a search engine which is censored in line with Chinese political policy.

Those two companies are now working with the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, Human Rights Watch and the Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT) in Washington on a code of conduct.

The companies announced their "intention to seek solutions to the free expression and privacy challenges faced by technology and communications companies doing business internationally", according to a joint statement.

Later this year the group of companies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will produce "a set of principles guiding company behaviour when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights", said the statement. Those that commit to those principles will be held accountable to them, it said.

"Technology companies have played a vital role building the economy and providing tools important for democratic reform in developing countries," said CDT executive director Leslie Harris. "But many governments have found ways to turn technology against their citizens – monitoring legitimate online activities and censoring democratic material."

"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," said Harris.

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