Last week, three of the biggest corporate names in the online technology sector unveiled a joint initiative to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet. Calling those interests "human rights," Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! signed on to a project called the Global Network Initiative (www.globalnetworkinitiative.org), along with a host of academics, investors, and human rights organizations.
The initiative has developed a document called Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy in response to increasing pressure from governments around the world to comply with domestic laws and policies that require censorship and disclosure of personal information. In recent years, technology companies have been criticized for their complicity in censoring online information in nations such as China. The idea for the initiative was first developed in 2006, right around the time that Google was called before Congress to testify about its role in censoring access to certain websites for Chinese internet users.
But leaders of the initiative insist that the principles are not directed exclusively at China. Acting executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society Colin Maclay says, "The number of states actively seeking to censor online content and access to personal information is growing, and the means employed—technical, social, legal, political—are increasingly sophisticated. …"
The principles aim to provide a systematic approach for companies, investors, academics, nonprofit groups, and others to work together in resisting efforts by governments that seek to enlist companies in acts of censorship and surveillance that violate international standards. The principles include minimizing the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression, protecting users’ personal information, making corporate decisions responsibly, and taking a collaborative approach to problem solving in these areas.
As ambitious as the principles are, the minds behind them acknowledge that they can’t and won’t be a magic bullet for the world’s internet privacy and access issues. "Balancing respect for freedom of expression and the right to privacy with government policies and practices is not easy, but these principles give companies a reasonable basis to guide their actions," says Bennett Freeman, senior vice president for social and research policy for the Calvert Group.
The principles are supported by specific implementation commitments and a framework for accountability and learning. In practice, the procedures implemented in accordance with the initiative will include the following: evaluating against international standards government requests to censor content or access to user information; providing greater transparency; assessing human rights risks when entering new markets or introducing new products; instituting employee training and oversight programs; challenging human rights violations; and providing whistle-blowing mechanisms through which violations can be reported.
How effectively the parties involved will be able to implement the principles of the initiative, and be held accountable for upholding them, is one of the big questions surrounding the venture. As part of the accountability efforts, an independent will be charged with performing a human rights assessment that will evaluate companies on how well they’re adhering to the principles.
"As we move to implement this initiative, we will judge our success by whether we can develop a credible system for reviewing and evaluating individual company compliance with these standards," says Mike Posner, president of Human Rights First. "The public must have confidence that participating companies are taking necessary measures to challenge unwarranted government interference."
Responses to the initiative from opinion-makers and the blogosphere were decidedly mixed. eWeek.com’s Security Center editor Larry Seltzer was generally positive in his assessment, taking the backers of the initiative at their word that the principles will be implementable. He wrote, "I have to say I’m impressed with both the companies and the human rights groups involved here. They all recognized that no progress can come from being dogmatic. … In the long term, as the principles put it, information and communications technology companies and the products and services they provide will help to spread ideas of freedom as they help communicate more. In the long term, I don’t think the machine can compete."
Cyrus Farivar, writing on Salon.com’s Machinist, expressed a more cynical view of the initiative. On the whole, he views it as being too equivocal, pointing out the many instances of the word "should" (as opposed to "will") in the principles. "I’m sure all these dudes don’t need me to tell them that in the countries that we’re talking about (China, we’re looking at you), the right to privacy and freedom of expression is restricted," he wrote. "It doesn’t matter whether it ought to be or not, the fact of the matter is that, well, it is."
Farivar went on to cite the example of Chinese journalist Shi Tao, who in 2004 was imprisoned because Yahoo! turned over details about his online activity on Yahoo! Mail. (Jerry Yang publicly apologized to Tao’s mother during a Congressional hearing last year.) Farivar noted that it’s one thing to pay "lip service" to human rights and another to actually do something. He concluded his commentary by expressing doubt that the initiative will be effective in its mission to promote internet freedoms. "I’d gladly bet that we’re never going to see any of these companies stand up to China, face restricted market access or threaten to pull its stakes entirely—largely because they have no leverage over China, even collectively," he wrote.
While Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! are eagerly trumpeting their involvement with the Global Network Initiative, whether it is really the first step toward extending basic freedoms to the internet across the world or an unenforceable manifesto of pie-in-the-sky idealism remains an open question.