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A Landmark for Digital Rights

On March 28, at an event in Brussels, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) announced that it has dramatically expanded its reach with the addition of seven new corporate members serving more than 1.5 billion people in over 120 countries in Africa, North, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific:

“Millicom, Nokia, Orange, Telefónica, Telenor Group, Telia Company and Vodafone Group have joined GNI’s five global internet company members – Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo – and with more than 35 human rights and press freedom groups, academics and investor members in this unique collaboration to strengthen protections for global digital rights.”

Why is this so important?

Your home computer and the device you carry in your pocket connect you to the world in a way that is unprecedented in human history. But we aren’t the only ones empowered by this technology. Each government’s ability to monitor and track our communications—and even our precise location — is also unprecedented. If you live in a developing country with a repressive government, a mobile device can be a powerful economic and political tool, but it can also put you at serious risk.  

A range of global corporations sit between you, your government, and the global community. And every day, around the world, companies receive thousands of requests from governments to censor content on the Internet or turn over phone records or other personal information. Many of these requests—perhaps even most of these requests—are perfectly legitimate law enforcement efforts. Many, however, are more sinister, representing real threats to freedom of speech and privacy, including government-ordered shutdowns of internet and telecommunication services around elections or other important civic events. And, in an age of global terrorism, democracies are debating how to balance privacy, security, and freedom of expression.

Internet and telecommunications companies are caught in the middle of a very difficult balancing act. If companies fail to comply with these requests, they face serious legal consequences, including imprisonment of local employees or, ultimately, the loss of their license to operate in certain countries. If they comply, they risk losing the trust of their consumers and they become complicit in serious violations of fundamental human rights that ultimately threaten democratic institutions, rule of law and the long-term growth of their businesses.

Companies that are dedicated to building global communication networks and providing platforms for open communication do not want to find themselves on the wrong side of history. They also do not want to break the law, even when the law may be inconsistent with international human rights principles.

In 2005, we were concerned to learn about online censorship efforts by the Chinese government, and horrified to hear that a journalist named Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison for sending an email through his Yahoo account relating to the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. We helped draft and coordinate an investor statement on freedom of expression. We also began reaching out to companies in our portfolio to begin a dialogue about what could be done. By 2006, we had joined more formal multi-stakeholder conversations involving companies, investors, human rights organizations and academics.

At the time, I was quoted in The New York Times that a trade-off was being made between "making money and a person going to prison for expressing their viewpoint." I soon learned that the headlines were clear-cut, but the real-world dilemmas faced by these executives were not. This is the benefit of dialogue. In reality, there were far more questions than answers:

How would a company know that a request was inappropriate, when governments often refuse to explain why they need the information? Should companies leave countries where content is censored? When is it appropriate for a company to refuse to comply with a request from local law enforcement? Where is the line and how should it be drawn?

There was no handbook to answer these questions. There was no set of “best practices.” Each company had its own approach, but these internal policies were confidential. How could investors and citizens know when a company was doing the right thing? What was the right thing to do?

The Global Network Initiative was created in 2008 to help answer these questions and to provide a platform to advocate for better laws and regulations that respect our fundamental rights. Its founding members include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, academics and investors, including Domini.

Today, all corporate members of the GNI commit to a set of principles and implementation guidelines, based on international human rights instruments, and each company agrees to have its commitment to these principles evaluated every two years through a unique independent assessment process.

Domini helped to draft the GNI principles, which provide guidance to companies on how to respect, protect and advance user rights when they respond to government demands for censorship, disclosure of user data and restrictions on access to communications services. They are designed to strengthen rule of law and, over the long run, to hold governments to international human rights standards. We were also deeply involved in the creation of the GNI’s independent assessment process—the only one of its kind.

We stand at a unique point in history. Today, social media, online journalism, government surveillance and cybersecurity are top-of-mind issues for human rights defenders and government officials alike. The integrity of elections, national security and our ability to communicate and meet our most basic economic needs are at stake. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. We believe that such challenges call for a multi-stakeholder response, and that efforts such as the Global Network Initiative present our best hope for a sensible path forward.