Internet Heavyweights Get Behind Free Expression and Privacy Online

Although most commonly associated with China’s sophisticated internet censorship system or the surveillance of activists by governments in the Middle East, government attempts to control the internet are a global phenomenon. According to recent data, the Open Net Initiative has estimated that 47 percent of the world’s internet users, or 960 million people, experience some form of censorship online. In today’s environment, it is extremely important that major information and communications technology actors—companies that run things like search engines, email services, and web browsers—are committed to their users’ rights to free expression and privacy.

The human rights implications of information and communications technology companies are in the global spotlight in an unprecedented manner.  These companies are both connectors and catalysts for protest movements around the world, but also an increasingly important means of government censorship and surveillance. Of course not all potential government and private sector collaboration is unwelcome.  There are legitimate reasons for companies, law enforcement agencies, and governments to cooperate in monitoring online activity, such as protecting children online and addressing terrorism and crime.  But when government requests are overly broad, vague, or illegitimate, they harm the rights of users. Finding the balance between these priorities is not easy.

Companies who confront these challenging situations in their operations need not act alone. The Global Network Initiative was created to respond to just this need; working with companies so that they might make responsible decisions when facing such government requests.  The initiative’s principles on free expression and privacy provide a guide for responsible company action, rooted in international human rights standards, and buttressed by the independent assessment process that provides accountability. And our members collaborate to conduct cutting-edge research, real-time learning, and collective engagement on policy with governments and international institutions.

Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!—the founding company members of the Global Network Initiative—a growing coalition of information and communications technology actors—have taken an important step in this direction by undergoing pioneering independent assessments of their commitments to the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users.

The Global Network Initiative annual report [pdf], launched last week, captures the substance of this engagement on the part of these industry leaders. The three companies were assessed on their progress in implementing policies and procedures for dealing with government interventions or requests for user information that might threaten free expression or privacy online.

The initiative includes information and communications technology companies, civil society, investors, and academics who have taken a collaborative approach to promoting free expression and privacy online. The initiative’s members commit to a set of principles on free expression and privacy, and its corporate members are independently assessed on their implementation.

These first assessments indicate that the companies have made progress in adopting policies and procedures for dealing with government requests, but also provide recommendations for the companies. These include:

  • engaging more directly with human rights groups and experts when conducting risk assessments;
  • improving the sharing of information  within the company to help drive public policy engagement with governments; and
  • better documenting the process for conducting human rights impact assessments, updating it as new policy or legislative developments related to free expression and privacy are identified.

Further assessments beginning in late 2012 will explore how these mechanisms are deployed in practice. As the issues around freedom of expression and privacy online continue to take shape, so too does Global Network Initiative’s approach to corporate engagement. Among the topics under consideration are: developing recommendations on training company board directors on free expression and privacy concerns and helping to improve the information sources for companies conducting human rights impact assessments.

The Global Network Initiative’s membership is also beginning to reflect the global nature of free expression and privacy challenges. Swedish investors, Argentinean academics, and an Indian civil society policy institute are all counted among recent members.  Crucial to success is the participation of the private sector and technology companies; here too, membership is growing, with two new companies joining during the past year.

The initiative is just one component of a larger effort that aims to ensure that human rights are protected and respected online. Active engagement from industry actors such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! is an important step towards setting a global standard for how companies can demonstrate a responsible approach to free expression and privacy rights online. By working together with one another and with other stakeholders, technology companies have an opportunity to lead the way as a global model for effective corporate and non-corporate collaboration.

A grantee of the Open Society Information Program, the Global Network Initiative is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the information and communications technologies sector.

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