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Slow progress on online rights

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Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have assured US politicians in the run-up to the Olympics that they are close to signing up to a new code of conduct for trading under repressive regimes.

Each has written to a pair of concerned senators to offer vague promises that all that stuff about snitching on dissidents and censoring search results at the behest of Beijing is being worked out in partnership with online rights groups. A voluntary agreement will include independent monitoring, they said.

The 1 August letters, to Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn, promise a full deal will materialise soon. The politicos had urged Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to agree principles for protecting online freedoms in time for the opening of the Olympic games this Friday.

It was not to be. The companies said in their letters that the principles are a super-high priority (the project began in January 2007), and that they expect to sign by the end of this year. For now the the firms are short on details on the rules and how they will be enforced, but long on rhetoric.

Google's hubristic, misty-eyed, sub-Obama techno-wittering is typical:

Promoting freedom of expression and privacy for users in the United States and around the world is a top priority for Google. As a company that aspires to bring the democratizing power of the internet to individuals in every corner of every county in the world, Google helped initiate the principles process to strengthen the internet's collective hand vis-a-vis restrictive and repressive regimes.

Durbin responded to the letters by saying: "While the code of conduct is being finalized, I urge American Internet companies operating in repressive countries to do everything possible to resist censorship and protect user privacy and freedom of expression."

The negotiations were sparked by high-profile mis-steps by US internet giants in China. Yahoo! has been called to account by Congress after it gave up information that led to a ten year sentence for the journalist Shi Tao. It has since set up a fund to aid the families of jailed dissidents.

Google, meanwhile, has come under fire for launching Google.cn, a localised version of its search engine that doesn't index sites the Chinese government disapproves of, such as information relating to the Falun Gong sect or the Tiananmen Square protests and bloody crackdown of 1989. ®

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