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.