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Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft have passed up the chance to take part in a web conference on internet freedom being hosted by human rights group Amnesty International this evening.

The event is being held to discuss how free debate is being quashed by oppressive regimes. The three tech giants could have made a crucial contribution to the debate over whether isolation or inclusion is the best way to help people living under such regimes, as all have been criticised recently for bowing to oppressive practices.

With all three declining Amnesty's invitation to take part, it leaves a mere, but distinguished, assembly of internet dissidents, human rights groups, and people like Morton Sklar, the man who is taking Yahoo! to court to face the accusation that its collusion with the Chinese government has led to the torture of dissidents who used its email service.

Amnesty said in a statement that the "Chinese model" of internet repression, which involves blocking websites and arresting bloggers, is becoming popular around the world. The Open Net Initiative reported that 25 governments censor what their citizens can read on the internet.

The Chinese model, said Amnesty, allowed economic growth but not free speech or privacy.

Yahoo! helped the Chinese government trace Shi Tao, who was subsequently arrested and sentenced for 10 years for emailing a US human rights campaigner about how journalists' reports were being censored on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organisation of Human Rights USA, has complained about Yahoo! in a California court on behalf of Chinese citizens who claim to have suffered torture, cruel and degrading treatment, and imprisonment for doing nothing more than speek freely. Yahoo! is accused of handing copies of their emails and IDs over to Chinese investigators. The trial is due to open on 7 August.

Yahoo! will also be facing a shareholder motion on 12 June to cease its collusion with oppressive regimes. The issue was forced by public pension funds led by the New York City Comptroller, which has also taken on Google.

Google has been accused of filtering politically dissident web pages from the Chinese version of its search engine. Microsoft, meanwhile, stands accused of similar collusion, having closed the blog of Zhao Jing, the Beijng researcher of the New York Times.

Amnesty is disappointed the trio will not be discussing their policies in public. They had previously agreed to the debate the issue in a forum with Amnesty, other human rights organisations, and socially responsible investors 18 months ago. But the talks are being conducted under Chatham House rules.

"It would have been useful to have heard the arguments about why they behave as they do, and for them to hear the counter arguments, and how their activities are contrary to the business principles they describe - their belief in the internet being a forum for freedom of information. That's the platform that they've built their business on," said an Amnesty spokesman.

Bob Boorstin, director of policy communications and Google's representative at the closed talks, said it is better to give people access to most information than deny them some. Or to put it another way, deny them some so you can give them most.

That is the sort of compromise that has driven US trade policy over China against a tide of criticism of human rights abuses. The argument might therefore be made that inclusion is a greater ally to human rights than exclusion, but these corporations won't be the ones to do it.

This is, The Register understands, the kind of argument Yahoo! will be making to shareholders on 12 June. It might be difficult to sustain morally if it transpires that the corporate collusion of internet firms has led to torture of political dissidents.

Yahoo! was unavailable to state its position. Microsoft refused to comment. ®

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