Internet companies 'must respect free speech'

Reporters without Borders has called on companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo to respect human rights, even if the countries they are operating in don't

IT companies operating in countries with repressive regimes should face tighter regulation when it comes to supporting freedom of speech, according to a leading anti-censorship organisation.

Press freedom group Reporters without Borders issued a report late last week calling on the US government and US regulators to help develop a voluntary code of conduct for IT companies operating in countries such as China, Tunisia and Burma.

One recommendation made by the group is that US companies should be prevented from hosting email servers in a countries with repressive regimes. This would ensure that any requests for information from the authorities of a repressive regime would have to pass through the US judicial system, the group claims.

"We believe these practices violate the rights to freedom of expression as defined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such ethical failings on the part of American companies damage the image of the United States abroad," said the Reporters without Borders statement.

The group claimed that a law regulating the activities of Internet companies should be a last resort but would become necessary if a code of conduct cannot be agreed by a specific deadline.

The publication of the Reporters without Borders document follows recent condemnation of Microsoft and Yahoo's activities in China.

Earlier this month it emerged that Microsoft's had agreed to remove the blog of a Chinese journalist from its MSN Spaces site. The software maker claimed that the site was blocked to help ensure the service complied with local laws in China.

"Microsoft is a multi-national business and as such need to manage the reality of operating in countries around the world," a Microsoft spokesperson said at the time.

Yahoo signed an agreement with the Chinese government back in 2002, agreeing to censor the results of the Chinese version of its search engine. More recently, according to Reporters without Borders, Yahoo had cooperated with Chinese authorities to identify and convict a pro-human rights journalist in China.

In 2004, Reporters without borders criticised both Yahoo and Google for complicity with the Chinese authorities for blocking "subversive" content, and called for the US government to protect the rights of Chinese Web users.