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In China, Germany, and all over the world, American-based Internet businesses are giving in to local demands that they censor the information they make available online. Their concessions have led to a backlash from several members of Congress, who argue that the companies should follow the United States’s free speech standard worldwide. Now in-house lawyers at Google Inc., Microsoft Corporation, and Yahoo! Inc. have banded together in a rare act of collaboration to develop Internet content guidelines. They’re seeking input from government officials, academics, and free speech groups on how to best export America’s First Amendment values. “The issue is broader than any one company or any one country,” Microsoft associate GC Ira Rubinstein says in explaining the need for the project. “We all recognize that we’re much better off acting together and trying to use a joint approach as leverage.” So far the companies have agreed on three principles: Content should be censored only after a government makes a valid legal demand; content should be removed only in the country making the request; and users in that country should be notified that content was blocked by government order. But the joint guidelines are only the first step, Rubinstein says. Microsoft and its allies also plan to ask “relevant U.S. officials” to press the free speech cause with China and other countries, perhaps in ongoing World Trade Organization talks. The companies are also seeking advice from experts at Stanford Law School’s Center for the Internet and Society, Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the University of California’s Berkeley China Internet Project. Lauren Gelman, associate director of the Stanford center, says the collaborative project makes sense. “It’s hard for each individual company to confront a regime,” Gelman says, “but if they collectively set standards for doing business overseas, they will have a lot more market power to make changes.” While Internet companies have been asked to modify their offerings overseas for years, their dilemma really hit the headlines in January. That’s when Google gave into a Chinese government demand and agreed that the local version of its search engine would block material about Tibet, human rights, and other topics that Beijing has declared off-limits. Google senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin says that Internet companies, including his own, must comply with local laws controlling content. Microsoft drew fire late last year when it agreed to remove a popular Chinese blogger from MSN Spaces, the company’s blogging and personal publishing service. Microsoft bowed to pressure from the Chinese government, which had been angered by the blogger’s political opinions. In January, GC Brad Smith announced that the company would continue to censor itself in countries like China when it receives government notice that material on its sites violates national laws. Internet businesses aren’t just dealing with censorship demands in authoritarian Asian countries, but in European democracies, too. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco � based free speech advocacy group, maintains a Web site called Chilling Effects Clearinghouse in cooperation with several universities. The site lists official government notices demanding the removal of content from the Internet to comply with local laws. (So far only Google has volunteered its notices for the list, which goes back to September 2004.) The bulk of complaints come from Germany, which has strict hate speech laws, and from the United Kingdom, which has tough defamation statutes. The argument by Internet companies that they’re only following local laws hasn’t persuaded many members of Congress. In February two House subcommittees held a joint hearing on U.S. � based Internet services in China. Lawmakers attacked Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft for giving in to Beijing’s censorship demands. Representative Christopher Smith (R � New Jersey), who convened the House hearing, is worried about more than just China, however. He’s introduced the Global Online Freedom Act, which also cites Cuba, Iran, Laos, the Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Vietnam for preventing their citizens from freely accessing the Internet. Smith’s bill seeks to set up an Office of Global Internet Freedom, and to restrict U.S. � based Internet firms from blocking or censoring content. Internet companies criticize Representative Smith’s bill for being too broad and unrealistic in today’s world. These businesses, which have been fighting free speech battles for years, have their own ideas about finding the right approach. Yahoo GC Michael Callahan, who testified at the House hearing, argued that even a restricted Internet in China “empowers its citizens and will help advance Chinese society. The alternative would be for [our] services to leave China … [entirely].” The companies have to tailor their services to comply with other countries’ laws in order to do business in those places, Callahan said. Even when the Internet businesses have to give in to a particular government’s demand, they limit their censorship to that country, Rubinstein says. The offending content is still available in the rest of the world. As a result, users in China, for example, could still use an Internet provider based in another country to read or e-mail locally banned material. Further, Google’s McLaughlin says that his company tells users when something has been censored and why. If Google removes an item from its Chinese service, for instance, it posts a note that the information has been removed by order of the Chinese government. “We are extremely conscious of promoting free expression day in and day out,” McLaughlin says. “Fighting censorship has been a core value of the company from the beginning.” Stanford’s Gelman says the companies’ decisions will do more than shape their own future abroad. “They deal with technology that enables free speech and democracy,” Gelman says. “So how the values behind this country’s First Amendment are going to be exported to other countries as a worldwide human rights issue is going to depend on these companies’ actions.”

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