Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A step forward for technology companies and internet freedoms

If you've been following, as we have, the story of internet companies being implicated in human rights abuses around privacy and freedom of expression - see one of our earlier blogs here - then you'll be interested to see that Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, three of the companies most in the firing line on these issues, have launched a new multi-stakeholder program, the 'Global Network Initiative' aimed at tackling the problem.

This has come in a little under the radar, as there has not been much news of these developments in the business press leading up to the launch, but it appears to have arrived as a pretty well worked out program. With a tagline of "Protecting and Advancing Freedom of Expression and Privacy in Information and Communications Technologies", the initiative is a partnership between tech companies, human rights groups, academic institutions, and other institutions involved in media and communications freedoms. It has a set of principles, guidelines on implementation, including a commitment to human rights impact assessments, and a built-in review process. Most importantly, there is also a commitment to institute independent monitoring of companies' compliance with their commitments (though not, as far as we can tell, a commitment to report publicly).

It is, it has to be said, a difficult area to navigate for technology companies. Dealing with overseas governments can raise a host of problems that they are ill prepared to deal with, especially when they are operating overseas through a subsidiary or joint venture. So the initiative is certainly welcome. It establishes a clear framework for action that should make a meaningful difference to decision makers inside the organizations concerned. Of course, the devil will be in the detail of how such principles will be realized in practice. Especially interesting in this respect for us are the commitments to actively lobby governments to shift their expectations and demands:
"Participating companies will encourage governments to be specific, transparent and consistent in the demands, laws and regulations (“government restrictions”) that are issued to restrict freedom of expression online.

Participants will also encourage government demands that are consistent with international laws and standards on freedom of expression. This includes engaging proactively with governments to reach a shared understanding of how government restrictions can be applied in a manner consistent with the Principles.

When required to restrict communications or remove content, participating companies will:
  • Require that governments follow established domestic legal processes when they are seeking to restrict freedom of expression.
  • Interpret government restrictions and demands so as to minimize the negative effect on freedom of expression.
  • Interpret the governmental authority’s jurisdiction so as to minimize the negative effect on to freedom of expression."

There are so many tricky details in that one passage alone, but it is heartening to see that the participants seem to be fully aware of the complications. As the Wall Street Journal blog, China Journal, put it:

For the most part, however, members decided not to include specific rules on issues such as where to host servers — outside servers can keep data out of problematic territories — because they felt that fast-changing technology might make them quickly irrelevant.

“The idea is that we believe the guidelines will need to be reviewed, and we will have to revise them as we take into account the actual experience,” says Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, which also helped develop the framework over two years. “It envisions an ongoing process of learning and sharing best practices,” she says.

So, there is still a lot to work out as the initiative unfolds. Let's just hope that Microsoft, Yahoo and Google can stay friends long enough to do all that mutual learning and sharing before they fall out with one another again...

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