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China's booming population of internet users has soared to 338 million users, according to June 2009 figures from the China Internet Network Information Center. Toronto-based Citizen Lab wants to look at how search and other technology companies measure up to their own guidelines on protecting free speech and privacy in countries like China. ((Associated Press))

A group of prominent Canadian researchers has launched an initiative to examine how closely companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo follow their own principles regarding freedom of expression and privacy.

Citizen Lab, which runs out of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies, has gained prominence this year after it uncovered an alleged internet spy network  based mostly in China in March and last month aided Iranians in accessing blocked content on the web.

Now the group will turn its attention to the private sector, examining how closely technology companies follow their own agreed-upon principles for conduct.

In October 2008, Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. were all signatories — along with several human rights groups — of the Global Network Initiative. That group aims to develop agreed-upon and voluntary principles to protect human rights in the information and communications technology sector, even as the companies face pressure from governments to comply with domestic laws and policies that may limit those rights.

Anti-censorship software

Citizen Lab, which operates out of the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Studies, is one of many groups making software available that allows people to sign on to a server giving them secure access to web pages anywhere, bypassing government restrictions on websites and content and allowing access to services such as Twitter.

Guidelines included asking participating companies:

  • To seek to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression.
  • To employ human rights impact assessments and develop risk mitigation strategies.
  • To work with government to alter government restrictions which appear to go overboard.
  • To give clear, prominent and timely notice to users when content has been restricted.

Study not limited to online search companies

Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert said the focus of this summer's Global Network Initiative (GNI) Monitor would be to assess how these companies were doing in following their own principles.

Yahoo in particular has been a target of human rights groups since it admitted two years ago that it provided information to Chinese authorities that led to the arrests and imprisonment of two Chinese journalists.

Human rights groups have kept a close eye on the larger search companies, particularly after a number of high-profile cases of censorship in China.

Yahoo in particular has been a target of human rights groups since it admitted two years ago that it provided information to Chinese authorities that led to the arrests and imprisonment of two Chinese journalists.

Since then, Yahoo settled a lawsuit with the journalists' families and set up a human rights fund to provide aid to dissidents.

Deibert said while the search engines will be a focus of the examination, the study will not be limited to them.

"We are focusing our technical interrogation part of the GNI Monitor on the search engines simply because we have developed a suite of interrogation tools to do so," he said. "But we intend to monitor non-search engines and non-signatories to the GNI using non-technical means."

Deibert said that while the list of companies to be examined has yet to be finalized, Nokia Siemens Networks would be among the companies not associated with the GNI that they will be monitoring.

Iran has reportedly blocked some communications and websites and has been following some types of communication with the help of call-monitoring technology created by the company, a merger of Siemens AG, based in Germany, and Finnish cellphone company Nokia Corporation.

Iranians and Iranian-Canadians have called for a boycott of the company for its role in the potential monitoring of civilians. But the company said while it has provided the Iranian government with Lawful Intercept technology to monitor local voice calls within the country, it has not equipped Iran with technology to monitor data, the internet or international calls.