Advancing global Internet freedom
In the wake of troubling reports as recently as last year that Western companies were assisting China with Internet censorship and the unmasking of cyber-dissidents, governments around the world seemed poised to regulate the conduct of Internet companies. Lawmakers appear to have stepped back from those efforts, but the challenges of advancing global Internet freedom remain.
The Global Online Freedom Act, drafted in the U.S. Congress, would have made it a crime for Internet companies to turn over personal information to governments in cases where that information could be used to punish dissent. The bill produced a firestorm of controversy. Human rights groups campaigned for swift passage, while the tech industry scrambled to stop the bill, which they viewed as a global eviction order from many difficult but emerging markets. At the same time, several members of the European Parliament proposed a European version of the measure, taking the accompanying controversy global.
Now policymakers seem far less certain that global Internet freedom will be served by imposing harsh mandates on Internet companies that provide crucial services to customers in repressive regimes. The bill has not been reintroduced in the U.S. Congress this year, and earlier this month, a top European regulator, European Union Telecommunications Commissioner Viviane Reding, dismissed the notion of Europe passing its own Global Internet Freedom Act, saying that she was not convinced that “hard law” was the best way to address the issue.
For Internet executives who feared that hard-line regulatory mandates might force them out of many countries, Reding’s comments came as welcome relief. But celebration is premature. Threats to Internet freedom are growing and lawmakers’ concerns about industry’s role remain rightly high. Those who choose to misconstrue Reding’s remarks as a free pass on this important issue do so at their peril.
Now is the time that Internet and technology companies must step up and take on the very challenges that the Global Internet Freedom Act was intended to address in order to ensure that their services and technologies do not become tools for surveillance and oppression.
Lest companies argue that the problem is too big and complex for any one company to make a difference, there is a responsible way forward. Late last year, a diverse coalition of leading information and communications companies, major human rights organizations, academics, investors and technology leaders launched the Global Network Initiative, which seeks to provide a framework 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 promotes collective action to uphold the rule of law and the adoption of public policies that protect and respect freedom of expression and privacy on the global network. Three technology giants – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! – have shown critical leadership by committing to the Global Network Initiative. Now, others in the industry need to step up and make that commitment as well.
Companies that join the initiative will find its requirements both rigorous and fair. Signatories will have two years to implement a range of commitments including conducting human rights risk assessments, training employees, increasing transparency with users and employing a high degree of push back when government restrictions or demands appear to be inconsistent with fundamental rights. Members also commit to encouraging their joint venture and business partners to abide by the same principles.
The collective goal is not to provide the definitive rulebook for companies doing business in hundreds of countries with countless different legal regimes. Rather, the initiative provides a framework that allows companies to stand up for their customers, wherever they are in the world, and to draw support from a powerful community of business leaders and human rights advocates.
Now is a critical moment for this initiative. As regulators shift their focus away from immediate legislative action, the test for the Internet industry will be the extent to which it commits itself to addressing the challenge on its own. The Global Network Initiative provides a path toward responsible action. But its value depends in part on expanding participation from the companies in the sector and building a global identity.
One thing is certain: the challenge of upholding global Internet freedom is not going away. The next time a foreign government uses American Internet technology to spy on citizens, censor democratic materials or otherwise oppress users, the world will ask what the Internet industry is doing to address the problem.
Ignoring the issue was never a viable alternative. The world is on notice about these practices, and the next attempt to legislate the issue is always just around the corner. Companies that participate in the Global Network Initiative will be prepared to do the right thing regardless of whether or not there is a legal mandate to do so. At the end of the day, this is about leadership on a fundamental issue of human rights that will not go away.