Leading Internet companies, long criticized by human rights groups for their business dealings in China, are agreeing to new guidelines that seek to limit what data they should share with authorities worldwide and when they should do so.
The guidelines, to be announced Tuesday, call for Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. to try to reduce the scope of government requests that appear to conflict with free speech and other human rights principles. They also require participating companies to seek requests in writing, along with the names and titles of the authorizing officer.
The Global Network Initiative guidelines were drawn up by the Internet companies along with human rights organizations, investors and academics.
But ultimately, the documents are less about "what happens when you get a knock on the door than what are you doing before then," said Leslie Harris, chief executive of the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the main groups behind the guidelines.
Harris said the companies are agreeing to consider human rights issues ahead of time as they decide which countries to operate in and what services to offer. The guidelines also call for companies to train employees and develop mechanisms to resolve conflicts.
It was not immediately clear, however, what practices, if any, will change, as the guidelines do not ban any specific conduct, and many of the key points are open to interpretation or are left to individual companies to implement.
"What's disappointing is that the amount of effort ... didn't produce something more substantial," said Morton Sklar, executive director of the World Organization for Human Rights USA, which sued Yahoo for giving Chinese officials information that led to the arrest of two journalists. The lawsuit has since been settled for an undisclosed amount.
He said the documents do not offer specific guidance on how a company's employee is supposed to respond when presented with a particular set of circumstances.
But Sklar praised the companies for recognizing "that there was a huge problem here and needed to be addressed."
About 18 months in the making, the guidelines do call for the creation of an oversight organization to regularly review the companies' practices, though what sanctions they face have yet to be decided. Other companies may join the Global Network Initiative.
The guidelines stress that free expression and human rights are ultimately principles requiring the commitment of governments, and that organization will also help companies collaborate on lobbying.
Internet companies have felt compelled to expand into China because of its growth potential, but the push into the world's most populous country has raised thorny issues, particularly for Yahoo and Google, which were both co-founded by immigrants.
Yahoo and its Taiwan-born chief executive, Jerry Yang, have faced the biggest backlash for handing over e-mails that led to the imprisonment of two Chinese journalists. Besides Sklar's lawsuit, the outcry spurred a congressional hearing during which the late Rep. Tom Lantos likened Yang to a moral "pygmy" for cooperating with the Chinese government.
Yang has since been more proactive about speaking out for human rights. Leading up to the Olympics in Beijing, Yang urged the Bush administration to use its diplomatic influence to obtain the release of jailed political dissidents.
Google has refrained from offering e-mail or blogging services in China because it doesn't want to be put in a position where it might have to turn over any of its user's communications.
Still, Google has come under fire for censoring about 2% of its search results in China to comply with government rules. Google's Russian-born co-founder, Sergey Brin, has maintained that the people living there will be better off with an abbreviated version of the search engine than a full version that is entirely blocked by the government.
"From the start, Google has promoted free expression and the protection of our users' privacy," said Bob Boorstin, Google's director of policy communications. "We see this as another crucial step. The coming together of all these diverse companies and groups is more likely to bring change in government policies than any one company working by itself."
In a statement, Yang said the guidelines "provide a valuable roadmap for companies like Yahoo operating in markets where freedom of expression and privacy are unfairly restricted."