Are Internet and Telecom Companies Living up to Their Digital Responsibilities?

Rebecca MacKinnon, Director of the Ranking Digital Rights project at the New America Foundation, discusses how policies and practices of internet and telecommunications companies have an impact on free expression and privacy, asking if these companies are living up to their digital responsibilities. This article was originally posted on the New America’s Weekly Wonk and can be found here.

The hits to our digital freedom and privacy keep coming. Are we ready to take the first steps to stop them? For the 25th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, LinkedIn blocked mentions of the tragedy for its users in China. Last month, Twitter came under fire from free speech activists for agreeing to censor several tweets in Pakistan at the government’s request.  Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported that “the Syrian opposition is disappearing from Facebook” – and not by choice.

Multinational companies that offer mobile and fixed line Internet service around the world are also coming under fire from human rights groups. Norway’s Telenor is under pressure from Thailand’s new military leaders who just seized power in a coup to help monitor and censor any content that might “lead to unrest.” Human Rights Watch recently questioned the French company, Orange, about its operations in Ethiopia whose government jails bloggers for political critiques.

Clearly, the policies and practices of Internet and telecommunications companies have real impact for the free expression and privacy of people around the world. Are they living up to their responsibilities? Are they doing everything they can to respect the rights of their users? Some companies are trying – to varying degrees. Others are doing little more than P.R. window-dressing. Others are making little or no discernable effort to respect their users’ digital rights.

As Internet users, or as investors who care about social value as well as financial returns, what should we be asking of these companies? How do we benchmark and compare companies’ policies and practices affecting free expression and privacy?  What should be considered “best practice” in a world where governments are making unreasonable demands of companies, whose staff risk jail or worse in many cases for non-compliance?

The Ranking Digital Rights project is working on answers to those questions. We are developing a methodology for assessing, benchmarking and ultimately ranking the world’s most powerful Internet and telecommunications companies on free expression and privacy criteria. We spent the past year conducting research and consulting with human rights groups, technologists, experts on business and human rights, responsible investors, and many companies themselves. The result is this draft methodology on which we are now inviting public comment until July 7th. After we revise it we will conduct a pilot study later this year. We will then start ranking up to 50 companies in 2015.

Companies are already being measured by investors, universities, NGOs and international organizations on other human rights, social responsibility and sustainability criteria – from conflict minerals to labor practices to carbon disclosure. Many rankings efforts such as the Access to Medicines Index and the Corporate Equality Index have had real impact on corporate practices. Companies like Sustainalytics, are working to meet the growing demand from investors for “environmental, social, and governance” practices of companies. The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board recently added freedom of expression and privacy criteria to its recommended SEC reporting standards. These developments give us confidence that if this ranking is done well, we too can have a substantial, measurable impact on the extent to which companies respect and protect Internet users’ rights.

But first, in order to make sure that our methodology is as solid as possible, it is important that we get feedback on our latest draft from experts on digital privacy and freedom of expression, anybody who might want to use our data when it comes out, as well as companies who may be candidates for ranking.

If you think you might be one of those people – or if you just care about these issues and want to weigh in – please click here, read the methodology, and let us know what you think.

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