Global Network Initiative’s Digital Freedoms Report

Jermyn Brooks, independent chair of the Global Network Initiative, speaks on June 14 about plans for the group in 2012. Photo credit Tom Risen

The struggle for Internet freedom was at the center of world-shaking events that took place in 2011, and a new report commissioned by the nonprofit Global Network Initiative (GNI) calls for greater defense of people’s digital rights by companies as well as governments in 2012.

The GNI is a multi-stakeholder initiative that brings together companies, civil society groups, socially responsible investors and academics committed to helping the Internet and telecommunications sector uphold core principles of free expression and privacy in the course of doing business all over the world. Companies face demands from governments everywhere to remove or block content or share user information. The GNI provides a framework for companies to deal with this reality in a way that protects their users’ and customers’ rights to the maximum degree possible.

Most notably in 2011 and early 2012, the organization’s annual report (downloadable as a pdf here) describes how GNI’s three founding companies, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, recently underwent an independent assessment process to determine whether and to what extent they have put policies and procedures on protecting free expression and privacy into place. The independent assessment completed in March was the first ever of its kind for the information and communications technology industry. During 2011 the organization also raised policy concerns about a range of government actions that harm free expression and privacy, from the Egyptian government’s Internet shutdown in early 2011 to censorship and surveillance proposals in the United Kingdom after riots broke out last summer.

On June 14 the group presented a new academic report entitled “Digital Freedoms in International Law,” which includes recommendations for companies and governments to continue the push for standards for digital liberties. Here is an excerpt of the executive summary:

With around 2.3 billion users, the Internet has become part of the daily lives of a significant percentage of the global population, including for political debate and activism. While states are responsible for protecting human rights online under international law, companies responsible for Internet infrastructure, products and services can play an important supporting role. Companies also have a legal and corporate social responsibility to support legitimate law enforcement agency actions to reduce online criminal activity such as fraud, child exploitation and terrorism. They sometimes face ethical and moral dilemmas when such actions may facilitate violations of human rights.

In this report we suggest practical measures that governments, corporations and other stakeholders can take to protect freedom of expression, privacy, and related rights in globally networked digital technologies. These are built on a detailed analysis of international law (particularly the ICCPR), three workshops in London, Washington DC and Delhi, and extensive interviews with government, civil society and corporate actors.

The initiative announced the report at the New America Foundation during the Global Network Initiative’s 2012 Learning Forum. The full report is downloadable here. One key issue raised by Ian Brown, a co-author of the report, was the challenge of managing “dual use technologies,” which could be used to build surveillance networks to stifle dissent in repressive nations, and how to define when sale of such technology should be sanctioned the way the United States restricted sales to Syria.

“By and large sanctions are only in place against countries that have already gone a very long way down the road in serious human rights violations, whilst allowing other repressive regimes to build surveillance infrastructures and surveillance infrastructures and censorship infrastructures that might be abused,” said Brown, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. “Sanctions politically are very hard to agree on. Understandably states have significant companies whose business interests they do not want to damage.”

The full report – which while commissioned by the GNI did not reflect the views of all GNI members – lists specific recommendations for companies, governments, non-governmental organizations and investors to better address digital freedoms, including:

  • States should be willing to engage in dispute resolutions measures to resolve conflicts over human rights compliance in the use of products sold and supported by companies from their country.
  • Investors should expect companies to follow appropriate human rights standards that are developed and implemented in a multi-stakeholder processes. The report also recommends investors should require accountability from companies through public reporting, even if certain details are held back in extremely sensitive situations.
  • Non-governmental organizations should provide information to consumers about the potential human rights risks of a product or service, and should raise awareness about the human rights responsibilities of information and technology companies.
  • Companies should collect information on legal systems and experiences in different jurisdictions with other companies, governments and non-governmental organizations. This information would help companies decide how to employ their tech services in a country to minimize the risk of human rights abuse.
  • Companies should seek judicial review of requests for user data in courts of a host country in circumstances that could violate international human right law.
  • Companies should each insist that government demands for access to data not stored within their own jurisdiction should be made only through the applicable Mutual Legal Assistance agreements. Governments should also insist requests for data held on their territory be made through Mutual Legal Assistance agreements, and that extraterritorial demands for access to data on a server in their jurisdiction would otherwise be a violation of sovereignty.

The GNI was founded in 2008 with Microsoft, Yahoo and Google as the first three member companies, and in 2011 GNI added two new member companies, along with more staff and funding to increase digital rights dialogue between tech companies and governments. Web security company Websense and online voice content company Evoca joined GNI in 2011 as its fourth and fifth corporate members. Seven other civil society groups also joined GNI in 2011.

In May Facebook joined GNI as an observer company for a one-year term. During this period to decide if they want to sign up for full membership, the company is involved in some of GNI’s learning and policy activities. Facebook will not undergo the human rights audit of its business that full members undertake. Irish top-level domain registry service Afilias Limited also joined GNI in May as the second observer-status company.

After the announcement of the report there were several panel discussions about Internet freedom challenges for companies and the way forward for GNI. Click here for video of the event.

Discussing the data protection dilemmas faced by businesses, Google’s Director of Corporate and Policy Communication Bob Boorstin said companies have an incentive to encourage a free and open Internet worldwide for personal freedoms and for economic growth. Global digital business must protect the security and privacy of users’ data while deciding how to comply with government data security policies, Boorstin said. Google’s Asian data centers are under construction in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

“It is hard to untangle a corporation’s right to sell ads from the user’s rights to free expression. They go hand in hand,” Boorstin said. “[Another issue] that is becoming increasingly important is the location of data centers. And demands by countries around the world, that in order to provide services or products in those countries you must locate data centers in those countries.”

British journalist John Kampfner moderated the panel discussions about how companies should coordinate with governments to uphold privacy and free expression. Also on June 14 the British government announced a draft bill that would allow the government to track Internet use by accessing data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs). This was used by Kampfner as a case example of governments requesting data from tech companies on the pretext of national security concerns to the point where privacy rights could be put at risk.

“To what degree do democratic governments practice what they preach, or to what extent do the restrictions laid on the Internet, for whatever reason, usually under the guise of terrorism and antiterrorism, are sort of manna from heaven? Are they the perfect “get-out” clause?” said Kampfner, author of “Freedom for Sale: Why The World Is Trading Democracy For Security.”

Representing the Indian-based Centre for Internet & Society, which joined GNI in 2011 along with six other civil society groups, the Indian group’s Executive Director Sunil Abraham echoed a need for governments to recognize digital freedom and discourage nations from cherry-picking existing tech policy to justify political agendas.

“In India, whenever policy is formulated, the country’s policymakers always look to the West both for good ideas and bad ideas,” Abraham said.

The U.S. State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Labor Dan Baer said regional organizations such as the Organization of Americans States could help encourage standards for digital rights, but also called the loose interpretation of terrorism an “unavoidable challenge.”

“We should be concerned about exploiting the term not only because [it is exploited] in order to perpetrate abuses, but also because it cheapens the coin, and therefore unhelpfully broadens what is aimed at being a very focused effort to target a very real threat, which is real terrorism,” said Baer, who works with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy.

Closing the learning forum, the Global Network Initiative’s Independent Chair Jermyn Brooks called on governments and companies to join GNI, and to coordinate with international experts to solve challenges facing digital rights.

“The information, the expertise, the experience, is there. But we need to be better at telling people that we’ve accumulated that expertise and there’s real value there,” Brooks said.

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