Rivals Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have joined forces with other companies and academics to stop governments (most notably China) from suppressing freedom of expression and ordering them to betray their customers' privacy. The three software giants today announced creation of the Global Network Initiative designed to persuade oppressive governments to allow their citizens to freely express opinions, via the Web in particular, without fear of retribution.

Participating companies  must agree to "respect and protect the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression, remove content or otherwise limit access to information and ideas in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards," says the new group's guidelines.

The organization's most influential tech companies have come under fire for bowing to Chinese officials' demands to filter Internet searches to bar surfers from accessing information about Tiananmen Square, democracy and other controversial issues, BBC News reports. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been taken a virtual beating from free speech advocates for shuttering the blog of Chinese media researcher Zhao Jing nearly three years ago after he used MSN Spaces (a joint venture between Microsoft and Shanghai Alliance Entertainment) to criticize a management purge at the Beijing News daily newspaper. Chinese reporter Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years in jail after Yahoo! China provided the Chinese government with account information that linked Tao to a pseudonymous Web posting outlining the content of a government memorandum. Yahoo! claimed afterward that they had no information about the nature of the investigation when they gave the Chinese government the necessary information to identify Tao. That type of unquestioning compliance won't cut it anymore, at least that's the new initiative's message.

The Initiative is being launched in the 60th Anniversary year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is founded upon internationally recognized human rights outlined in the declaration as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

The initiative encourages members to take a tougher stance against intrusive governments to protect the privacy and free speech rights of their customers and to think twice before doing business in countries known to trample citizens' rights.

Participants are expected to hire outside auditors to independently assess how well  they are adhering to the initiative's rules.

Don't expect any radical chances results any time soon: companies joining the initiative (at a cost of $100,000) have two years from the time they sign on to prove they're following the guidelines. It is unclear, however, the consequences a company faces if they join the initiative but fail to meet these guidelines.

(Image courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Cat London)