United States Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) sent a letter today to three internet giants, seeking an update on a long-planned voluntary code of conduct being written by the industry. The code of conduct, which was discussed during a hearing Durbin chaired in May on global internet freedom and corporate responsibility, would regulate the actions of internet firms which operate in countries that restrict internet use and content. Today's letter was sent to the CEOs of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.
"It is critical to the protection of fundamental human rights that a voluntary code of conduct be finalized and implemented as soon as possible," wrote the Senators. "At the hearing, we agreed that Google and other American internet companies operating in internet-restricting countries should promote free speech and not facilitate repression. A voluntary code of conduct would be one important step toward our shared goals of promoting freedom of expression and protecting the privacy of internet users around the world.
We recognize that the code of conduct raises complicated issues with potentially far-reaching effects on your company's operations, but with every day that the code is not finalized the human rights of people across the globe are jeopardized."
Durbin and Coburn voiced concern that without an agreement, American internet companies operating in China will be pressured to provide information about athletes, journalists and tourists visiting the country for the Olympic Games. China has come under increased scrutiny due to previous prosecutions of internet activists and widespread internet censorship.
In a much-publicized case, Chinese dissident Shi Tao was convicted of leaking state secrets and imprisoned for ten years for forwarding an email to a humanitarian group outside China. Crucial to his conviction was information, including the IP address from which the email was sent, that was provided to the Chinese authorities by Yahoo!.
The practices of other internet companies have also been called into question. Google received significant public criticism when it decided to launch Google.cn, a China-specific search site that conforms with China's censorship policies. And Microsoft has removed the blogs of Chinese internet activists from its blogging service in response to requests from the Chinese government.
Today's letter expressed concern that the code of conduct has not yet been completed and urged the companies to finalize an agreement soon. Durbin and Coburn further suggested that if an agreement isn't reached, Congress may act to establish operating criteria to protect basic human rights. "If American internet companies are unable to regulate themselves effectively, Congress may be forced to consider doing so," the Senators wrote.