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Twitter, Facebook Still Reluctant to Join Free Speech Initiative

Three years ago, some of the world's leading tech companies agreed to participate in the Global Network Initiative (GNI) -- a code of conduct designed to protect online speech and privacy around the world. The initiative was originally launched in response to brewing tensions in China, where some Internet companies were accused of complying with government censorship policies in order to pursue profit-driven agendas. Today, the GNI can count corporations like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo among its prized members, but there are still some glaring omissions -- including Facebook, and Twitter.

According to its code of conduct, all initiative participants are required "to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression," while doing their best to protect user privacy whenever government regulations "compromise privacy in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards." All companies and organizations are subject to evaluations from independent auditors, who determine whether or not their policies comply with the initiative's objectives.

It would seem, then, that most companies would have an incentive to join the GNI. Supporting free speech in the face of authoritarian regimes definitely wouldn't hurt a firm's public image, while making efforts to self-regulate could help the industry avoid potentially more restrictive government regulations in the future. Three years after its launch, however, the GNI is struggling to attract new members, and some are even questioning its capacity to affect real change.

The code of conduct, for example, isn't quite as demanding as it may seem. Companies can still comply with government censorship policies, as long as they fully disclose the action, as Microsoft does in China. Some firms claim that the GNI's auditing process can be unnecessarily burdensome, while others struggle to see how membership could offer financial gain. And, while the initiative has helped fuel constructive dialogue among its member companies, some insist that they can create equally robust policies on their own.

At a time when protests in the Middle East are pushing online freedoms to the forefront of diplomatic and political conversations, the GNI seems to be searching for its own identity. After all, it's hard to characterize any organization as "global," when all of its members are American companies or organizations. And, despite having played a critical role in facilitating communication and mobilization across the Arab world, neither Facebook nor Twitter have signed on to the GNI.

Facebook has already been publicly criticized for not joining the initiative, but spokesman Andrew Noyes points out that the social network regularly engages with government regulators and human rights groups, while placing a premium on enhancing user trust. "As Facebook grows, we'll continue to expand our outreach and participation," Noyes told the New York Times. "But it's important to remember that our global operations are still small, with offices in only a handful of countries."

Noyes didn't offer a specific explanation for Facebook's absence from the initiative, while Twitter declined to comment.

Tags: freedom of speech, FreedomOfSpeech, global network initiative, GlobalNetworkInitiative, government, middle east, MiddleEast, politics, privacy, regulation, security, SocialNetworking, top, Web