The European Parliament has called on the European Commission to establish a code of conduct governing the online censorship of dissidents. It wants companies such as Google and Telecom Italia to pledge not to help governments censor their citizens.
The Parliament has adopted a text denouncing the governments of China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia for persecuting political opponents for views expressed online. It also name-checks Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft as companies that help those governments censor their citizens.
"[The] Chinese government has successfully persuaded companies such as Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft to facilitate the censorship of their services in the Chinese internet market," says the text.
Google said it believes that even the censored search engine provides some benefits. "Google respects the fact that people and organisations, including Amnesty, oppose our decision to launch a search service in China," said a Google spokeswoman in a statement.
"Google believes that Google.cn will provide significant benefits to Chinese internet users and that our engagement in China meaningfully expands access to information there.
"Google.cn already discloses to users when information has been removed from our search results in response to local laws and regulations. We believe this provides some additional transparency and is a step in the right direction."
The Parliament cannot directly control companies' behaviour. "There is not pressure we can bring to bear directly on companies, but we have passed this on to the commission and the Council of Ministers and want them to draw up a code of conduct," said a European Parliament spokesman.
The text is not a legally enforceable document, it is simply a register of the Parliament's support for freedom of expression on the internet, the spokesman said.
The document says the Parliament "strongly condemns restrictions on internet content, whether they apply to the dissemination or to the receipt of information, that are imposed by governments and are not in strict conformity with the guarantee of freedom of expression".
The Parliament said it "strongly condemns the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and others who are expressing their opinions on the internet [and] calls, in this respect, on the council and the commission to take all necessary measures vis-à-vis the authorities of the concerned countries for the immediate release of all detained internet users".
The Parliament also wants the commission to consider limiting aid to countries whose internet policies do not protect freedom of expression. The document said the Parliament "calls on the council and the commission when considering its assistance programmes to third countries to take into account the need for unrestricted internet access by their citizens".
The Parliament spokesman said the document could be considered alongside proposals that emerged at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis at the end of last year. He also said it could be adopted not just by the commission, but by the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union.
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