For almost two years, EFF has been a participant in negotiations between human rights groups, investors, academics and Internet companies -- including Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft -- aimed at improving how those businesses deal with free expression and privacy issues around the world.

Today, the results of that discussion have been announced. The Global Network Initiative is a set of principles on free expression and privacy that the companies have agreed to follow in all countries they do business within, together with a set of implementation guidelines and a skeleton for an independent watchdog body that will monitor companies for compliance with these principles.

Before now, Internet companies' first reaction to revelations of complicity in human rights abuses has been to deny that they can do anything at all. When Yahoo's involvement in the Shi Tao case in China was first revealed in 2005, Yahoo stated that it was obligated to "operate within the laws, regulations and customs" of countries.

The Global Network Initiative demonstrates that there is far more that companies can and will commit to do. They can train their employees to recognize requests that may violate international agreements. They can structure ways to evaluate requests and challenge them in the local courts. They can ensure that board-level executives are kept aware of potential human rights issues, and can acknowledge their responsibilities. They can build human rights requirements into contracts they sign with third-parties. They can, as they have done in this initiative, consult with their competitors, civil liberties experts, socially-conscious investment funds and academics to learn and improve how they behave in situations that might threaten the rights of users. The Initiative is a significant indication of the importance of accountability for better human rights practices online.

It's not a perfect set of documents. EFF continues to work in the Initiative, but we do have concerns with the limits of this initial agreement:

  • There is no obligation to inform Internet users of the storage location of personal data, and from where it is accessible.
  • There is no commitment to inform users when they hand over their information to agents of government and law enforcement.
  • There is no binding requirement to develop privacy and anti-censorship technologies and include them in new products.
  • GNI assessors are selected by the companies themselves from a list of neutral groups, and do not have untrammeled access to all relevant company documents.

When it comes to addressing their involvement in worldwide human rights abuses, the first step for Internet companies had been admitting that there is a problem. With the Global Network Initiative, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google have gone further, and begun to embed human rights assessments into their own company structure. We hope many other companies will join them.

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