Principles for a better Web

October 30, 2008

Colin MaclayCaroline Nolan By Colin Maclay, Acting Executive Director, and Caroline Nolan, Research Associate, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

More than one billion people are online, with three times that amount connected via mobile devices, just one indication of how integrated digital technologies are with lives and livelihoods around the globe. While governments have for the most part encouraged these developments, they are increasingly aware of technology’s capacity to disrupt existing power structures and accordingly ambivalent. As governments seek to control information and online activities, private actors – information and communication technology (ICT) firms in particular – are increasingly called upon to assist in those efforts.

Many of us mistakenly assume that Internet governance doesn’t touch us, and maybe it doesn’t – what expression is allowed on the Net and whether your personal information is shared with law enforcement is often governed less by law and more by practice. As Jonathan Zittrain and John Palfrey have long argued, companies providing technology services are important Internet points of control  and are under great pressure to comply with local laws and practices, which can be at odds with international standards, corporate values, and social norms.

Facets of these corporate dilemmas have been explored by the OpenNet Initiative, the Citizen Lab, Chilling Effects, and other keen observers like Rebecca Mackinnon, but we are just beginning to understand the scope of this rapidly evolving problem.  Most of us remain more familiar with a few infamous incidents in certain countries than with the real challenges arising with less fanfare across the world. The emergent nature of global technologies, business models, and government responses makes these complex problems particularly difficult for law to address effectively , at least in the near term.  These networked, distributed issues require a dynamic approach, capable of evolving and scaling alongside the problem, and ideally ahead of it.

Launching this week, the Global Network Initiative is a multi-stakeholder effort – grounded in a set of guiding principles, supported by implementation guidelines, and a governance, accountability and learning framework  – that establishes a robust, responsive platform for participating companies, NGOs, investors, academics, and others to work together to protect and advance the rights to free expression and privacy in the ICT sector worldwide. The launch represents the empowerment of a coalition that can support companies as they resist governments that seek to enlist them in acts of censorship and surveillance in violation of international standards.

This ground-breaking approach was developed with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!Human Rights WatchCommittee to Protect Journalists, Research Center for Information Law at University of St. Gallen, Switzerland FIR, School of Information at University of California-Berkeley, Calvert, F&C Investments  and other organizations – hopefully, with many others introducing still greater diversity to come. Our varied views and experiences can be challenging, they push – and allow – us to consider the problem and approaches to it across multiple dimensions, ultimately helping us to balance aspiration and reality (or near term progress with long-term success) in a way that no one sector would likely achieve.

The actions of (and expectations for) companies will evolve over time. Early commitments center on responsible decision-making, specifically developing the capacity to anticipate and address concerns relating to privacy and expression.  Among other steps, companies will form cross-functional leadership teams and train employees; conduct human rights impact assessments before entering new geographical or service markets, developing associated strategies to mitigate those risks; and encourage participation in GNI by relevant partners.

Company relations with law enforcement can be complex, due to obligations to support both legitimate law enforcement aims and commitments to protect user rights (which is also clearly a business interest).  Under GNI guidelines, companies will request written documentation explaining the legal basis for government restrictions; will seek to minimize the impact of any such restrictions; and will challenge governments when faced with requests that appear inconsistent with domestic law or international human rights standards.

These activities will be verified through an accountability and learning framework, in which outside monitors will explore what is working and what is not, ensuring that companies are making progress on their commitments, and developing remediation where they are not.  Companies’ public reporting will foster greater transparency with users and the wider public.

Beyond these internal commitments (which companies are already introducing), we are optimistic about the Initiative’s capacity for collective action that can have a transformative effect on government behavior and lasting impact. 

As a university research center, the Berkman Center will focus on building the GNI’s underlying foundation – its capacity for learning and research and information sharing – developing strategies to identify, understand, and address the threats to and opportunities for privacy and free expression.

We are in the early stages of a long road but are fortunate to have recognized that these are network issues: they emerge from and are characterized by the distributed nature of ICTs. Effective solutions should be built upon the same platform, with efforts that are independent yet coordinated; responses that are tried, evaluated and refined over time; and lessons that are shared and adapted; and all the while, striving for transparency. The Global Network Initiative connects our contention that the digital world not only gives rise to new challenges, but also allows the formation of new institutions that respond effectively to them.


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Now if only a talking shop were an effective weapon against cybercrime, which is the only malign Internet issue which affects the rest of us….

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

[…] digital technologies are with lives and livelihoods around the globe. For perspective, click The Great Debate: Principles for a better Web|. Share and […]

Posted by Internet size is staggering | PC Mike – Tech News and Reviews | Report as abusive

Microsoft should start by following webstandars with IE…

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

I question any participation in such effort by Google, Inc. that has engaged in the largest abuses of privacy, property and civil rights than any of the companies mentioned in scale of financial measure. Further that Yahoo’s Yang’s appology is noble yet covers the greater concern that nothing has been done by the US Government and that the financial stakeholders microsoft, google and yahoo do not have a legitimate place in an argument about the protections of Civil Rights and Liberties as well as Property Thefts as demonstrated by Google, inc. towards authors and innovators.

That a whole new regulatory system is required and should be moved into law with great expediency to protect the public and most specifically from Google, Inc. The largest violator that has shown no ability for self regulation, poor ethics of management and no redeeming moral characteristics as a company involved significantly in the sector.

Further the experimental classified programs of the bush administration security agencies, their victims and damages should be disclosed to the public prior to any legislation regarding new principals of governance of untrammeled internet corporations and their ample abuses of Civil Rights.

I know well of what I speak.

Posted by James Harris | Report as abusive

The internet is so successful because it isn’t regulated by politicians.

Take for example the housing and banking sectors. Those two sectors are two of the most politician regulated sectors in our economy, and it’s no wonder they’ve failed. The auto industry is also heavily regulated (It’s failing). The airline industry (It’s failing). The healthcare industry (It’s failing). When politicians get involved by inventing their own rules, taxing, and/or subsidizing, they distort the marketplace and reduce competition, reduce efficiency, and reduce quality.

We need to leave the internet alone and we can use our court system and police forces to punish those who commit crimes online. Freedom works much better than political central planning.

Posted by Sam | Report as abusive

Maybe I’m being pedantic, but that first sentence was written very poorly. No, on second thought, it’s not pedantry on my part – it took from my ability to understand the article. Surely the number of people online using mobile devices is a subset of the total number of people who are online? It makes no sense to say a billion people are online and 3 times that number are online using mobile devices. And one never uses the word “amount” to refer to people, but “number”.

I remain mystified.

Posted by Liz W | Report as abusive

Web culture is about open mindedness, autonomy, liberty, self-determination, creativity. It transcends race, social status, gender, nationality, location and religion. It promisses to become an important driver of a new world order fighting despotism and collectivism. If only it can take hold in the real world. The GNI initiative is a step towards that goal. Congratulations.

Posted by Armand Bogaarts | Report as abusive

The web culture is an example what happens when humans do not have laws to live by…you get chaos…All of mankinds problems and corruptions are simple amplified on the net because there is too much freedom…humans become corrupt whith out laws…

Posted by old ewok | Report as abusive

Reply to ewok:

Unfortunately, there will always be corruption. If you think we have too much freedom on the net, I suggest you move to China where the internet is heavily regulated.

Freedom is simple; You can do whatever you want to yourself as long as you don’t use force or coercion on others. If someone forces you to do something we have a police and court system you can use to protect yourself with.

Bottom line: We’re never going to have a “perfect” utopian society. I’d rather live in a free society than a society under the control of a few people… Because history proves that eventually those people in control will always abuse their power. We have to understand that humanity is imperfect and that freedom works best.

Posted by Sam | Report as abusive