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The Global Network Initiative today released a public report on the independent assessments of founding companies Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The assessments looked at cases of government requests implicating the rights of Internet users, and found that each company is making a good faith effort to implement GNI’s Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, and to improve over time.
“These independent assessments—the first of their kind—present a major step forward on human rights accountability in the technology sector,” said GNI Board Chair Jermyn Brooks. “They demonstrated in the many specific cases examined how companies, applying the GNI Principles, have in fact been able to limit the removal of content and the release of personal data as a result of government requests,” he continued.
The assessments focused on products and services that in the company’s view posed the most salient risks to freedom of expression and privacy—search, email, and photo and video sharing services—with cases identified through a process that included consultation with GNI’s non-company members. The report presents information in aggregate or anonymized form in order to allow public disclosure of how the companies review and respond to government requests without disclosing confidential information. The report also details examples of the recommendations made by the assessors to one or more companies. The process did not and cannot determine whether the companies have acted appropriately with respect to each of the many thousands of requests received each year from governments.
The human rights obligations of telecommunications companies are in the global spotlight in the wake of recent reports about national security-related communications surveillance. Companies committed to respecting free expression and privacy rights should take this opportunity to work with governments to increase transparency according to a new report by the Global Network Initiative.
The report, “Opening the Lines: A Call for Transparency from Governments and Telecommunications Companies,” illustrates the types of requirements telecommunications companies face and explores how they can respond to them in ways that respect human rights. Informed by case study review of the laws and regulations governing telecommunications companies in the European Union, and at the national level in Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the report shows that the risks to free expression and privacy in the sector are not limited to the United States. Authored by Chris Tuppen, senior partner of Advancing Sustainability LLP and the former Chief Sustainability Officer at BT, the report makes specific recommendations around how to increase transparency.
The Global Network Initiative (GNI) welcomes the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry project to develop guidance on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the draft guidance.
GNI 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 ICT sector. GNI provides resources for ICT companies to help them address difficult issues related to freedom of expression and privacy that they may face anywhere in the world. GNI has created a framework of principles and a confidential, collaborative approach to working through challenges of corporate responsibility in the ICT sector.
Developing detailed guidance that is of practical use to companies across the sector is a challenging task, and we have been pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the work of the project team at the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Shift, particularly with regards to freedom of expression and privacy rights. GNI is represented on the ICT Sector Advisory Group by Executive Director Susan Morgan and GNI Board members Rebecca MacKinnon and Lewis Segall, and participated in the recent roundtable discussion of the draft in Brussels.
Read GNI's comments here.
Read all submissions on the ICT sector guidance here.
GNI Independent Chair Jermyn Brooks has authored a contribution to the Internet & Society Co:llaboratory Discussion Paper on Human Rights and Internet Governance. The article responds to a proposition by Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.
New technologies have played a catalytic role in support of democratic aspirations in the Middle East and around the world. In her essay Shirin Ebadi eloquently describes how free expression, “the first step to democracy,” facilitates the meaningful realization of other rights, and the impact of virtual communications networks in Iran. But innovations in information and communication technologies (ICTs) present risks as well as opportunities to advance human rights. The challenges of navigating this nexus are too complicated for companies to manage alone, and a growing number of companies, civil society organizations, investors, and academics are collaborating to advance freedom of expression and privacy rights through the Global Network Initiative (GNI).
On October 19, 2012, GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan presented to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission) at a briefing entitled "Online Safety under Repressive Regimes: What is the Responsibility of Technology Companies?"
In her testimony, Morgan described the difference that the GNI is making for companies seeking to advance freedom of expression and privacy rights, from completing the first assessments of technology companies’ policies and procedures for responding to government requests affecting free speech and privacy, to using our collective voice to influence public policy worldwide.
"By working together, rights-respecting companies have an opportunity to both set a global standard for how companies can responsibly manage government requests impacting free expression and privacy rights, but also collectively engage with those governments to promote the rule of law and the adoption of laws, policies and practices that protect, respect, and fulfill rights to free expression and privacy," said Morgan.
GNI Board member Meg Roggensack, Senior Advisor for Business and Human Rights at Human Rights First, also briefed the Commission. "The threats to Internet freedom are pervasive and proliferating – as the headlines confirm. Without the full engagement of ICT companies in this battle, we can’t realize the vision of ‘one Internet,’” said Roggensack.