Global Network Initiative Launched
October 29, 2008
Filed under International
This week, a diverse coalition of leading information and communications companies, major human rights organizations, academics, investors and technology leaders launched the Global Network Initiative. The initiative seeks to help information and telecommunications companies chart an ethical and accountable path forward through the growing demands from countries to take actions that infringe on the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users. Equally important, the initiative intends to engage in collective action to promote the rule of law and the adoption of public policies that protect and respect core human rights on the global network. Three technology giants (Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!) have shown critical leadership by committing to the Initiative, and others both here and in Europe are likely to join in the coming weeks and months. While there will be an understandable temptation to dub this effort as "China principles" given the challenges faced by U.S. technology companies operating there, such a characterization would miss the point. Technology companies are under increasing pressure from governments all over the world to participate in network censorship and otherwise comply with laws that are outside the bounds of internationally recognized human rights standards and norms with respect to users' free expression and privacy. While China is perhaps the most familiar or visible example, recent reports from the OpenNet Initiative make clear that Internet censorship and surveillance are a growing concern all over the world. These are global issues and this is an initiative with global application - and yes, that does include the United States. As a first step in addressing these issues, three key documents frame the Initiative: the principles, which state the commitments of the Initiative's members to collaborate in the advancement of user rights and provide high level guidance and direction to the participating companies; a set of flexible implementation guidelines, which provide more detailed guidance to companies on how to put the principles into practice; and a framework for governance, accountability and learning, which commit all participants to an ongoing collaboration and the participating companies to a system of accountability. Grounded in international human rights laws and standards, these documents and the commitments they articulate are the result of a dynamic, eighteen month engagement between companies, civil society organizations, academics, socially responsible investors, and Internet advocates. Not merely aspirational, the Initiative requires concrete commitments from participating companies to engage in a high level of corporate due diligence and risk management with respect to the demands they receive from government, and greater user transparency about the impact of those demands on freedom of expression and privacy, in all markets where they operate. Company fulfillment of these commitments will be evaluated through an independent and credible process for accountability. Just as important, all participants - each bringing their own ambit of experience and expertise - commit to collaborate in the shared task of advancing key human rights and addressing government policies that impact these rights. So what, in reality, will change? There is no one solution to addressing the growing stresses on freedom of expression and privacy online, and participants and other stakeholders may often disagree on strategy and approach. Constantly changing technologies, governmental practices, and global contexts prevent the creation of "right-wrong" rules that dictate specific outcomes when companies are faced with human rights challenges. Moreover, this Initiative is not a silver bullet. Governments are the principal actors here and are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the human rights of their citizens are protected. The launch of this Initiative does not mean a government will never be able to censor or arbitrarily detain a blogger who voices dissent. However, this Initiative does create something that did not exist before - a mechanism for companies to assess and manage human rights risks before a questionable demand for personal information arrives, and a roadmap for managing these challenges as they arise in dynamic operating environments. Responsible decision making processes, grounded in the human rights frame, will become the norm. The strength of this Initiative also lies in the commitment of its participants to collaborate to address these growing and emerging trends. Shared learning and frequent examination of the group's collective experiences and efforts amplifies the group's ability to understand the complexity of the challenges faced and develop systematic, coordinated responses. Working together, the Initiative's participants are better positioned to influence government behavior to be more protective of freedom of expression and privacy in the digital era. We have bold ambitions for the Global Network Initiative, and this is just the first step: we now begin the hard work of implementation and capacity building among all participants to reach our goals. Over time, we aim for the principles and guidelines to take root as a global standard that will be adopted by companies worldwide, employed by diverse stakeholders for advancing human rights, and recognized by governments and international bodies. But that will require other companies to step up to the challenge, join the Initiative, and participate in the hard work ahead.