Principles for a better Web
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 Watch, Committee 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.