Web giants ink a*se-covering China-dealing deal
Slow progress on online rights
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. ®
At least something will be written down
I'm as cynical about the business ethics of large companies as the next person (provided the next person is fairly cynical). But at least this represents a tiny step forward - something will be written down, and it will provide some means to hold these companies feet to the fire. Of course it has no legal force, but public embarrassment is quite a strong force when applies properly. If the code is worded in such a way as to allow lots of wiggle room to the signatories, that still provides a wedge with which to push for better behaviour.
If the large businesses gather under such a code of conduct, other businesses may follow, and that will help tell us where a given business stands. If enough businesses stand behind one code of conduct, it might even give those companies negotiating strength against the regimes in question (though I doubt it would be used that way).
As things are, companies can wiggle and change their direction as they see fit. At least this will tie them down a little bit. It can't be worse than things are now.
The Code of Conduct - final version
1. We'll do whatever the local authorities ask because we're getting cash from that country.
2. We'll do whatever the local authorities ask because the Chinese might just be able to organise google-sized data centres on their own and that would be competition we don't want.
3. Seeing as we don't make anything any more, if China starts using free stuff and not paying royalties to Western companies, they will have all the manufacturing plants and the ip rights and we'll have nothing to sell. We fear mobile phone tech and hd-dvd is just the start. This would be quite bad, so our Governments will be drafted in to protect us.
Paris, cos the local entertainment industries aren't totally dead yet. We just wish they were.
Will God save us from Obamamammamurmur?
Well, s/he hasn't saved us yet from lots of hot bull about democracy, so probably not. Maybe s/he's waiting until we're up to the eyeballs in it, and not while the stable is only knee-deep. To show us what a real Hero is.