It seemed the perfect rallying moment for a core cause, and the companies hoped that other technology firms would follow their lead.
But three years later, the effort known as the Global Network Initiative has failed to attract any corporate members beyond the original three, limiting its impact and raising questions about its potential as a viable force for change.
At the same time, the recent Middle East uprisings have highlighted the crucial role technology can play in the world’s most closed societies, which leaders of the initiative say makes their efforts even more important.
“Recent events really show that the issues of freedom of expression and privacy are relevant to companies across the board in the technology sector,” said Susan Morgan, executive director of the initiative. “Things really seem to be accelerating.”
But the global initiative is not. All of the participating companies are American. Also, Facebook and Twitter are notably absent despite their large audience and wide use by activists, in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Bennett Freeman, senior vice president of the mutual fund company Calvert Investments and a G.N.I. board member, pointed out that the three current members were among the biggest Internet companies, but acknowledged that “we are going to have to add some new companies soon to be truly influential.”
The biggest test yet for the initiative comes later this year, when member companies are judged on whether they have adequate policies in place to address privacy and free speech issues. Independent auditors will issue a report after examining whether the companies narrowly interpret government demands for user information and whether they store users’ data in countries where free speech is protected, for example.
Next year, the companies are to undergo a more thorough review of whether they lived up to code of conduct’s principles.
The initiative was created in 2008 after human rights groups and politicians condemned the top Internet companies for complying with China’s restrictive laws rather than jeopardizing their business interests by challenging them.
Yahoo had turned over data that led to the imprisonment of several Chinese activists. Microsoft had shut down a blog by a Chinese journalist who worked for The New York Times. Meanwhile, Google had introduced a censored search engine in China (although the company has since shut down that site).
The initiative is modeled on previous voluntary efforts aimed at eradicating sweatshops in the apparel industry and stopping corruption in the oil, natural gas and mining industries. As with those efforts at self-regulation, this one came at a time when Internet companies were seeking to polish their image and potentially ward off legislation.
The code of conduct says that companies must try “to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression” and protect user privacy when demands by government “compromise privacy in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.”
In practice, however, the code offers flexibility. Companies that go along with a country’s censorship requirements can remain in compliance as long as they disclose it, as Microsoft does with its censored search results in China.
A number of participants, which also include human rights groups, academics and firms specializing in socially responsible investing, agree that the initiative started slowly. Much of the focus since its founding has been on getting organized and hiring.
Originally, the membership was supposed to include the entire spectrum of software, hardware and telecommunications firms along with Internet companies. The idea was that a bigger roster would mean greater influence and credibility.
But recruiting efforts have been fruitless. Some companies have cited the auditing process as being too onerous, according to Global Network Initiative participants who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to discourage companies from joining in the future. Other companies do not see any financial benefit or think they can do it alone.
Andrew Noyes, a spokesman for Facebook, declined to address why Facebook had not joined. But he said that his company took seriously the issue of user trust and was in regular contact with governments and human rights groups.
“As Facebook grows, we’ll continue to expand our outreach and participation, but it’s important to remember that our global operations are still small, with offices in only a handful of countries,” Mr. Noyes said.
Twitter declined to comment.
Where the initiative has been most effective so far is in creating a forum for companies to easily get advice and share ideas. For instance, as the initiative’s participants were creating the code of conduct, human rights groups contacted Google after it removed videos in 2007 from YouTube showing police abuse in Egypt because of guidelines prohibiting violence. Google ultimately decided to restore the videos and adjust its policy to allow such clips.
Some human rights groups said the initiative’s code of conduct was weaker than they would have liked. Getting companies to sign on would have been impossible otherwise, they acknowledged, describing the code’s final version as the best that could be hoped for at the time.
Even with the code of conduct to help guide them, companies will inevitably come across issues that have no easy answers, said Rebecca MacKinnon, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who specializes in online privacy and is a participant in the initiative.
“Most of these issues aren’t black and white,” Ms. MacKinnon said. “The idea is to help them do the right thing rather than play ‘gotcha’ after they mess up.”