Reporters Without Borders criticized the Chinese government for what the press advocacy group considers a move to end anonymous blogging in the communist country.
The government, through the Internet Society of China, recently drafted a pact that was signed by at least 20 major blog service providers in the country, including Yahoo and Microsoft, the Paris-based watchdog group said Thursday.
"The pact stops short [of] the previous project of making it obligatory for bloggers to register, but it can be used to force service providers to censor content and identify bloggers," the group said in a statement. The pact, unveiled Wednesday, signals an "imminent" new wave of censorship and repression, the group said.
Blogging services, which make it easy and simple for people to publish writings, photos and videos on the Web, have become popular among individuals wanting to anonymously disseminate information that governments would rather keep confidential.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., didn't immediately reply to a request for comment. A Yahoo spokeswoman referred a request for comment to Alibaba.com, which manages Yahoo's China operations, but that company hadn't replied at press time.
Microsoft, in an e-mail statement on Friday, acknowledged that on Aug. 21, MSN China, a joint venture with Shanghai Alliance Investment, signed the document, which it says is "in line" with similar agreements adopted by other countries and organizations.
"Such self-regulatory codes are an effective means of helping to protect our customers from cybercrimes and other threats to online security and privacy, and to promoting a safe, friendly environment in which to enjoy our services," the statement reads.
Although it signed the document, Microsoft doesn't agree with some of its recommendations, such as requiring people to register with their real names for the company's Windows Live Spaces blog hosting and publishing service.
"It should be emphasized that these are indeed recommendations only, and we retain discretion to determine how to best achieve the overarching goals of the agreement," Microsoft said.
The pact "encourages" blog service providers to require that people provide their real names and contact information in order to let them post blogs, and then store the individuals' information, the press advocacy group said.
The pact also says blog service providers should "monitor and manage comments" as well as delete "illegal and bad information," according to Reporters Without Borders.
In its statement, the group quotes Internet Society of China Secretary General Huang Chengqing as saying: "Blog service providers who allow the use of pseudonyms may be more attractive to bloggers, but they will be punished by the government if they fail to screen illegal information."
China's Internet policies, such as the censorship of search engine results, have become a frequent target of criticism by organizations that advocate for human rights and press freedom.
These organizations, like Amnesty International, have also criticized Internet companies including Yahoo, Microsoft and Google Inc. for going along with Chinese government requirements that these groups charge violate human rights and press freedom.
The companies' defense is that they must comply with the local laws of the countries in which they operate.
Yahoo in particular has been blasted often in recent years for cooperating with the Chinese government and providing information that has led to the arrest of dissidents and journalists.
In April, the wife of an imprisoned Chinese dissident sued Yahoo in the U.S. for divulging information about her husband's Internet activity, which allegedly led to his arrest and torture. The suit was filed by the World Organization for Human Rights USA on behalf of Yu Ling, the wife of Wang Xiaoning, arrested in September 2002 on charges including "incitement to subvert state power."
This month, a U.S. congressional committee said it plans to investigate whether or not a Yahoo representative lied during testimony over the company's role in a human rights case in China that sent journalist Shi Tao to jail for 10 years.
In its statement, Microsoft said that government actions taken to address security, safety and other concerns, and which impact free expression and privacy "should be taken with deliberation and restraint."
Ultimately, through international dialogue, Microsoft supports the establishment of consistent "national actions" and the development of a set of principles to guide Internet companies providing services worldwide.
"To this end, Microsoft has joined with a diverse group of companies, academics, investors, technology leaders and human rights organizations to seek solutions to the free expression and privacy challenges faced by technology and communications companies doing business internationally," the statement reads.