The Wall Street Journal reports that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have agreed on a common set of principles governing how they intend to do business in countries that restrict free speech and human rights. All three companies have been criticized by rights groups and the US Congress in the past for putting profit over principles and human rights, in China in particular.
According to the article:
Under the new principles, which were crafted over two years, the technology titans promise to protect the personal information of their users wherever they do business and to “narrowly interpret and implement government demands that compromise privacy,” according to the code. They also commit to scrutinizing a country’s track record of jeopardizing personal information and freedom of expression before launching new businesses in a country and to discussing the risks widely with their executives and board members.
Other Internet giants (e.g., eBay) were not involved in the formulation of these guidelines but may adopt them. Presumably the idea would be to gain as many adherents as possible, not just in the US but internationally. While interpretation and implementation of these principles might prove complicated “on the ground,” they appear to represent a considerable advance over the ad hoc corporate behavior of the past. Still the Journal cites critics who believe that the agreement isn’t far-reaching enough:
“More serious questions have to be asked about these company’s legal obligations,” said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA. For instance, he said he would have liked the document to address whether Internet companies are violating U.S. or international laws by complying with requests from certain governments.
US or EU companies doing business in countries that have very different legal and political systems creates a very complex set of issues that span politics, morality and culture. However there need to be core principles and rules that Western companies won’t violate for the sake of making money. Hopefully these guidelines embody them.