|Journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in prison after Yahoo China provided his personal information to the Chinese government.|
After years of criticism for their willingness to collaborate with the Chinese government in exchange for a piece of the nation's huge supply of Internet users, the Big Three Internet companies have come up with a voluntary set of principles for doing business in repressive conditions.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the companies promise to protect users' personal information wherever they do business and to "narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy." The companies say that will look at a country's record of repression before agreeing to do business and to discuss the risks with their officers and directors.
The companies, as well as human rights groups like Human Rights First and Committee to Protect Journalists, are introducing these principles under the Global Network Initiative (coming soon). The participation of the nonprofits may mean this is more than just empty promises.
For one thing the companies agree to be monitored by independent groups. And for another, this is not just about China but the whole world.
"Common action by these diverse groups is more likely to bring about change in government policy than the efforts of any one company or group acting alone," said Robert Boorstin, director of corporate and policy communications at Google.
Will it make a difference?
But the World Organization for Human Rights USA says the plan should have addressed whether the companies violate laws by complying with demands for users' information. "More serious questions have to be asked about these company's legal obligations," said Morton Sklar, the group's executive director.
Even so, it's a huge step forward, Rebeccca McKinnon, who teaches journalism and media studies in Hong Kong, told the Journal's China blog.
Does it solve all problems? Probably not. [But] part of this is about getting companies to think through these issues before they get bad into situations. Now the fact that a manager would be told that he or she needs to keep these issues in mind and that the entire company is going to be benchmarked on these issues can potentially make a difference.
Joint ventures still an issue
One serious wrinkle: U.S. companies routinely do joint ventures with local companies, whose actions they don't control. Case in point: the Skype-TOM JV, which it turned out was archiving and providing to the government a massive database of censored messages, apparently without Skype's knowledge.
Notably, Skype owner eBay was not involved in the GNI and responded to the announcement coolly: eBay would "like to learn more about it and hear more of the details."
In the case of joint ventures, the Internet giants promise to take good faith, reasonable steps to "achieve the best result in the circumstances."