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Free speech on the Internet

shush1.jpgI came across a post on Threadwatch titled 'Google and Other Internet Giants to Create a Code of Conduct'. My first instinct when I read this was one of a tempered mix of interest and dismay. Basically Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Vodafone are working with a couple of national rights groups to make sure that companies are held accountable when helping to suppress free speech or commit human rights violations.

A couple of points here are important. Yahoo! has already widely been accused (multiple times) for giving up information on a Chinese bloggers which led to their arrest and imprisonment. Google and Microsoft have been accused of enforcing censorship within China as well. Vodafone is the only company of the four which has escaped accusations on the internet. I wonder if these previous rights violators and perpetuators of censorship will adhere to their own rules.

Now, I hold some personal admiration for these companies. They're creators of incredible solutions which have led to personal empowerment and brought terabytes of information  to millions of people. The bigger question here I think is why these companies should be allowed to create any such code (other than them wanting to). Is this like allowing felons to write new laws on the crimes they've already committed. What's the penalty if they're found in violation of the policies? Who monitors it? Who makes sure that small companies are protected? Who makes sure the people of the world are protected?

I am not saying this policy is not needed. It is. This could, and I hope it would, work for these big companies. This is a serious matter which is central to what the Internet is all about, freeing information and voices.

But why not have the internet community participate in this discussion and democratize this process? The people own the Internet. We're talking about a set of global operating principles here that reach far beyond US borders. Could a wiki be created to allow Internet users to weigh in and help to craft the guiding laws which will effect them and their children? It surely seems possible.

What are your thoughts on this? Are these companies trying to do the right thing or is this a PR move plain and simple? The outcome is vital to freedom of speech around the world.


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