Net Heavyweights Hammer Out Human Rights Guidelines

Several high-profile technology companies, human rights organizations, academics and investors have joined forces to launch the Global Network Initiative (GNI). Announced Tuesday, the GNI intends to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy throughout the information and communication technology industry.

Companies that have signed onto the GNI include Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. They will be working with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to avoid or minimize the impact of governmental restrictions on freedom of expression.

“The Initiative is important for its systemic approach to company practices; its unique collaboration among companies, human rights organizations, academics and investors; and the foundation it establishes to help advance basic protections for freedom of expression and privacy,” Chuck Cosson, senior policy counsel at Microsoft, told the E-Commerce Times.

Banding Together

Two years in development, the GNI is an international organization that has established a core set of principles regarding freedom of expression and privacy. GNI participants believe that these principles will help member companies protect the use of the Internet as a worldwide vehicle for information-sharing, innovation and economic development.

The organization has established a framework for companies to provide communications products and services worldwide while maintaining a sustained commitment to protect fundamental human rights.

Specifically, the GNI will require member companies to establish procedures to protect their users. They will do this by evaluating government requests to censor content or access user information; providing greater transparency; assessing human rights risks when entering new markets or introducing new products, and instituting employee training and oversight programs, according to Google.

“It’s an important first step. It will take a long time to get these Internet companies to actually build the systems within themselves to monitor and protect human rights,” Daniel O’Brien, international outreach coordinator for the EFF, told the E-Commerce Times. “But in all of these things, the first step is always admitting you have a problem. By far the hardest issue we’ve had with these companies is denial that it is happening.”

Several of the companies now involved in the GNI have taken fire over the past few years for their actions abroad. Google and Yahoo, in particular, have been castigated by members of Congress for practices that have effectively enabled repressive regimes to block access to certain search terms and results on the companies’ search engines.

Yahoo also received heavy criticism after it gave the Chinese government identifying information that led to the jailing of a Chinese journalist and a political dissident.

In their defense, the companies said simple business etiquette requires companies to follow the local laws and customs of countries in which they are doing business.

“This agreement is, at least for Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, an admission that they do have a part to play and that there are things they can improve,” said O’Brien.

Guidelines for Free Speech

Good intentions aside, the biggest question about the GNI is how the organization will enforce its guidelines.

The group will include a governance organization with its own executive director that is independent of the member organizations and companies, according to O’Brien.

“It will provide independent audits of how well they are doing. The (US)$100 million question is how independent that organization will be. We feel there is potential for it to do what it sets out to do, but it will need a lot of transparency and vigilance from groups within the initiative and outside of it,” he explained.

The EFF decided to work within the GNI to ensure that there were good checks and balances, he added.

“It’s an improvement over what we have now, where companies choose to keep their eyes shut and be ignorant of human rights abuses,” O’Brien noted. Under the GNI, companies will be expected to be fully knowledgeable about what’s going on on the ground. For example, they will need to take responsibility for any actions local third-party companies might carry out on their behalf.

The GNI will have to go even further, however, if it is to be effective, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

“It’s good that companies are paying more attention to the need to safeguard fundamental rights on the Internet, but this proposal lacks specific recommendations and fails to address key concerns about the surveillance and censorship of Internet users,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

What the world really needs, according to Rotenberg, is an international instrument based on the rule of law, support for democratic institutions, and respect for fundamental human rights.

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