On April 18, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) released its annual report documenting third-party assessments conducted in 2011 and 2012 for GNI’s three founding corporate participants: Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft. GNI was formed to bring major Internet companies together with human rights organizations to improve practices around human rights, privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet. In the past year, GNI expanded to include two more corporate participants—Evoca and Websense—and Facebook has recently joined the organization as an observing member. GNI has also added seven new non-corporate members—NGOs and investors from all over the world.
Phase I of GNI’s long-term strategy for improving free speech and human rights policies consisted of self-reporting by the companies. Phase II took the much more meaningful step of recruiting independent assessors to crack open company records and “determine whether the companies had the systems, policies and procedures in place to support the implementation of the Principles within their organization,” according to the report.
Those principles—which establish guidelines on freedom of expression, privacy, responsible decision-making, multi-stakeholder collaboration, accountability and transparency—can be found here.
“For the first time, third-party assessors received unprecedented access to these ICT sector companies to assess their policies and processes,” the annual report explains, referring to information and communication technology companies. However, this unprecedented access apparently will not result in the public release of any new information about company practices, since the assessors’ reports were redacted before the full GNI board was allowed to review them.
Since the assessors were only meant to conduct “an initial set of assessments” and “not audits or attestations,” according to the report, no real conclusive opinions were formed around company practices—and the tech firms were given the opportunity to handpick their own independent assessors, based on criteria set forth by GNI.
GNI's report concluded that the three participating companies (Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft):
• Have processes in place for reviewing government requests relating to freedom of expression and privacy
• Practice senior-level oversight of these issues
• Are engaged in conducting human rights impact assessments
• Communicate with staff on human rights issues
• Strive to apply GNI Principles to relationships with their partners, suppliers and distributors where they have operational control.
GNI’s report describes the development of an assessment process as “challenging,” and goes on to detail issues that emerged during the third-party assessments relating to companies’ unwillingness to divulge certain kinds of information:
One issue that had already been identified in GNI’s Governance Charter was the recognition that companies may be prevented from disclosing certain information by law, or may choose not to disclose information in order to preserve attorney-client privilege or protect trade secrets. Having met with the assessors and reviewed the reports, GNI’s Board concluded that despite these challenges the assessments were rigorous and credible.
While the “challenging” assessment process and vague report conclusions may leave something to be desired, GNI’s goal of strengthening tech company standards in these areas is laudable, and the initiative represents an opportunity to significantly raise the bar for leading tech titans whose business dealings put them into contact with governments throughout the globe that run the gamut from democratic to authoritarian.
However, GNI’s relatively slow pace of progress suggests that it is only part of the solution. Change requires a mix of grassroots activism —like the successful campaign spearheaded by Pakistan’s Bolo Bhi to secure commitments from Silicon Valley firms not to bid on the Pakistani government’s request for Internet-censoring software—in addition to formalized partnerships with major companies and nonprofit organizations.
EFF also conducted its own survey of Internet companies’ privacy practices with our ongoing Who Has Your Back? campaign, which focuses on the steps companies take to protect user data from government and law enforcement agencies.
Efforts to improve international standards on free speech, human rights, and privacy among major Internet companies are now more important than ever, especially given revelations that prominent tech companies have been quietly peddling surveillance software to governments with deplorable human rights track records.
And while the process is not perfect, the tech giants participating in GNI deserve credit for willing to open their books in order to improve their policies in partnership with human rights advocates. Later this year, GNI will begin Phase III of its assessments, which will produce a report on how the organizations Principles are being applied to real world cases its corporate members.