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Quick Hits: Internet Eludes Big Brother

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Brief scrutiny of today's headlines.

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After 18 months of fuss and fulmination, top Internet companies have agreed to new guidelines intended to limit what information they should share with governments worldwide.

The guidelines look about as helpful as an Error 404 message and a good deal less informative.

It's not clear if any practices will change because the new guidelines don't ban any specific actions. It appears many of the major points are open to interpretation or left to individual companies to put into action.

At best, that's a recipe for an uneven response. At worst, it's a not-so-artful cover for the status quo while proclaiming two-fisted support for goodness and light.

But Google (GOOG), Yahoo (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT) have signed on with great fanfare about protecting free speech and all that important stuff that sometimes conflicts with the bottom line.

The new guidelines call for the creation of an oversight organization to regularly review Internet companies' practices.

Just what the world needs: another committee with no or limited enforcement power that writes windy reports to be filed and forgotten. Whoopie.

The new guidelines stress that free expression and human rights require the commitment of governments everywhere, an insight sure to be embraced by authoritarian regimes with all the gusto of crunchy granola for breakfast.

China is a huge market and can't be ignored. But it poses problems for just about any company doing business there.

Yahoo turned over e-mails that led to the imprisonment of two Chinese journalists.

Google hasn't offered e-mail or blogging services in China to avoid a situation where it might have to give a user's communications to the government. Nevertheless, Google censors about 2% of its search results in China to comply with government rules.

The Internet companies say the new guidelines are "more likely to bring change in government policies" and "provide a valuable roadmap" for future actions.

What a relief.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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