The US's Center for Democracy & Technology has announced that after two years of negotiations, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft will in the next few days adopt a voluntary code of ethics "intended to safeguard online freedom of speech around the world".
The big three joined the initiative early last year and promised to work towards "a set of principles guiding company behaviour when faced with laws, regulations and policies that interfere with the achievement of human rights".
Yahoo! has in the past demonstrated it could use a bit of guidance, notably in China. In 2005, the company copped a righteous amount of flak for "assisting" the communist powers that be in tracking down and subsequently jailing "dissident" Shi Tao - a data-coughing incident which caused the company much embarrassment and earned it a rap on the knuckles from the US Congress.
Google, meanwhile, has been criticised for offering Google.cn which fails to index touchy local subjects such as the the Falun Gong sect or Tiananmen Square lest they offend the delicate sensibilities of the lucrative Chinese market's masters.
Back in August, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! wrote to two concerned US senators insiting the move towards the new code of conduct was proceeding apace-ish.
Google declared: "Promoting freedom of expression and privacy for users in the United States and around the world is a top priority for Google. As a company that aspires to bring the democratizing power of the internet to individuals in every corner of every county in the world, Google helped initiate the principles process to strengthen the internet's collective hand vis-a-vis restrictive and repressive regimes."
Quite what that means in practice remains to be seen, although we doubt that either empty rhetoric or an unenforceable "code of ethics" will provoke more than a wry smile in Beijing as China opens its fat chequebook in front of companies eager to get their snouts in the trough. ®