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Issues

The Global Network Initiative publishes statements and resources on a regular basis to highlight trends and issues of concern for all stakeholders in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. As a multi-stakeholder initiative, GNI draws on the collective expertise of our members and on our cumulative experience in the global implementation of the GNI Principles. 

GNI Principles Offer Guidance to ICT Manufacturing and Software Sector [UPDATE 08.19: Official update on Green Dam]

Date: 
Friday, June 12, 2009 - 16:00

[UPDATE 08.19] Announcement from Chinese official and translation: Green Dam no longer mandatory for general consumers

The Global Network Initiative is actively monitoring developments regarding the Chinese government’s directive that requires computer manufacturers to install the Green Dam/Youth Escort content control software on personal computers produced or sold in China. This directive is ostensibly intended to protect children from sexually explicit content, but in fact raises significant challenges for companies in the technology sector that also have a responsibility to respect human rights. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) offers a multi-stakeholder forum that provides operational guidance and a credible system for companies to develop effective strategies in response to these challenges.

Protection of children from exploitation and exposure to inappropriate material online is a legitimate public policy goal, which many countries around the world pursue. This goal can be achieved in ways consistent with international norms protecting the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. For example, public education regarding the availability of a wide variety of user-controlled filtering tools that allow parents and guardians to manage unwanted content in a way that is most appropriate for children under their care. Various companies – including the three company members of GNI – as well as other organizations offer a wide range of such software tools. However, the government mandate to pre-load the Green Dam/Youth Escort software on all PCs produced and sold in China clearly raises human rights concerns that the information and communications technology (ICT) sector must address.

The GNI Principles are grounded in international human rights standards for freedom of expression and privacy. Under these standards, the right to freedom of expression should not be restricted by governments except in narrowly defined circumstances, consistent with international human rights norms and the rule of law. Importantly, such restrictions should be necessary and proportionate for the relevant purpose.

Much about how the Green Dam/Youth Escort software functions in practice is yet to be determined and several GNI members are undertaking such an analysis. However, a number of facts about the software have been established that raise human rights concerns.

The concurrent and cumulative issues that implicate human rights and undermine user choice include the requirement for mandatory installation; the difficulty of uninstalling the software; and filtering that goes beyond sexually explicit or other content inappropriate for children. Results from independent tests of the software reported on Global Voices Online and elsewhere indicate that political content was indeed part of the website library of filtered content. An approach for protecting children online that requires the mandatory installation of a particular software package that is difficult to uninstall and filters far more than sexually explicit content is not consistent with the practices of other countries that have encouraged parental control tools and is far out of proportion to the goal of child protection.

Public opposition (including a legal challenge) to this software mandate within China is growing. The Chinese press and diverse parts of Chinese civil society have expressed concerns about privacy, security, transparency, consumer choice, and whether the cost of this effort is justifiable. In fact, the government recently clarified that use of the software by citizens is not mandatory in its official media statements. We hope that the domestic reaction within China will encourage the Chinese government to reconsider this mandate more fundamentally.

Nevertheless, there are many questions unanswered. Are any companies working with the software vendor to try and put the software in the market?  If the government clarifies its directive so that the software is shipped on a disk but not pre-installed, what should companies do to avoid complicity in censorship of political, religious, and cultural information online?  How can governments appropriately protect children from exploitation and exposure to inappropriate material? What steps should companies take to address such requests or directives? Hardware and software design companies will need to have adequate due diligence measures in place to ensure that they are prepared to address these questions in a way that respects fundamental human rights.

The GNI can help to address those dilemmas since it is a unique organization with the capacity to provide operational guidance on human rights issues in a collaborative setting. In particular, the GNI offers credible, operational guidance for companies, built on extensive experience, guided by a broad set of perspectives, and rooted in international human rights principles. The GNI also offers both technology sector companies and academics, investors, and non-governmental organizations an opportunity for frank discussion, collaboration on matters of public policy and corporate responsibility, and the sharing of expertise. Among the GNI principles and operational guidelines that are relevant to manufacturing and software companies:

  • Participating companies will respect and protect the freedom of expression of their users by seeking to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression.
  • Participating companies will employ human rights impact assessments to identify circumstances when freedom of expression and privacy may be jeopardized or advanced, and develop appropriate risk mitigation strategies, e.g., when designing and introducing new technologies, products, and services.
  • GNI participants will engage proactively with governments to reach a shared understanding of how government restrictions can be applied in a manner consistent with human rights norms. Companies will seek modification from authorized officials when government restrictions appear overbroad, not required by domestic law or inconsistent with international human rights standards.
  • Participating companies will give clear, prominent, and timely notice to users when access to content has been limited due to government restrictions.
  • GNI participants acknowledge and support appropriate initiatives that seek to identify, prevent, and limit access to illegal online activity such as child exploitation. Such initiatives raise potential concerns regarding freedom of expression and should therefore be narrowly tailored and subject to the rule of law.

 

[UPDATE 08.19] Announcement from Chinese official and translation: Green Dam no longer mandatory for general consumers

On August 13, 2009, Li Yizhong, China’s Minister of Industry and Information Technology, responded to questions about the status of the Green Dam mandate at an official press event:

"在学校、网吧等公众场合的计算机里,我们还是要装的。对于广大的消费者,充分尊重大家选择的自由,绝不会出现在所有销售的计算机里一律都要强制装上,不存在这个问题。"

"We are still going to install the software on computers in schools, Internet cafes, and other public venues. As for general consumers, we will fully respect everyone’s freedom of choice, and mandatory pre-installation on all computers sold will definitely not happen; there is no question of that."

Full transcript:
尊重消费者选择自由 计算机不会被强制安装“绿坝” (Respect the Consumer’s Freedom of Choice: Computers Will Not Be Forced To Have Green Dam Installed), Official website of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China, August 13, 2009.

English Translation by Human Rights in China, August 2009.


[UPDATE 06.25] Additional Resources on Green Dam

INDEPENDENT RESOURCES AND REPORTS

China's Green Dam: The Implications of Government Control Encroaching on the Home PC
By the Open Net Initiative

Analysis of the Green Dam Censorware System
By Scott Wolchok, Randy Yao & J. Alex Halderman
Computer Science and Engineering Division, University of Michigan

A Technical Analysis of the Chinese 'Green Dam Youth-Escort' Censorship Software
Wikileaks, An Independent Chinese group report


INDEPENDENT STATEMENTS AND REACTIONS FROM GNI MEMBERS

GNI Non-Company Participants

Center for Democracy & Technology


China Backs Off Green Dam Filtering Mandate
June 30, 2009



Buy a Computer, Get a Firewall… and More?

June 8, 2009

Committee to Protect Journalists

Seeing red over green: China to install censorship software
June 12, 2009

Human Rights in China

Chinese Lawyer Challenges Filtering Software Order and Requests Public Hearing
June 11, 2009

Chinese Government Orders Computer Manufacturers to Pre-install Filtering Software
June 8, 2009

Human Rights Watch

China: Filtering Software Challenges Computer Industry: Technology Companies Should Resist Censorship Attempts
June 19, 2009
Blogpost from Human Rights Watch

Open Letter to Computer Makers Regarding Chinese Filtering Software Directive
Letter sent to Dell, Inc., Hewlett-Packard Company, and Lenovo Group, Ltd.
Arvind Ganesan
Director, Business and Human Rights Program
Human Rights Watch

Selection of Coverage by Rebecca MacKinnon

Green Dam is Breached... Now What?, July 2, 2009

Green Damned, June 17, 2009

More Green Dam Documents and Statements, June 12, 2009

Original government document ordering "Green Dam" software installation, June 8, 2009

China's "Green Dam Youth Escort" software, June 8, 2009


GNI Company Participants

Yahoo!, as quoted in WSJ:

"Like other global businesses, we will continue analyze international developments that may impact our industry. We strongly support the free flow of information and the right to freedom of expression."
June 8, 2009

Kevin Kutz, Director of Public Affairs, Microsoft:

"Microsoft believes that the availability of appropriate parental control tools is an important societal consideration for industry and governments around the world.  At the same time, Microsoft is committed to helping advance the free flow of information and to encouraging transparency, deliberation and restraint with respect to Internet governance.  In this case, we agree with others in industry and around the world that important issues such as freedom of expression, privacy, system reliability and security need to be properly addressed."


EXTERNAL OBSERVERS

June 10, 2009
Op-ed by Michael Shtender-Auerbach,
Founder and Chief Executive of Social Risks LLC
"Hardware Risk: China Targets PC Manufacturers"
Huffington Post

June 9, 2009
Public Joint Statement by The Information Technology Industry Council, the Software & Information Industry Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association and TechAmerica:

"The Information Technology Industry Council, the Software & Information Industry Association, the Telecommunications Industry Association and TechAmerica urge the Chinese government to reconsider implementing its new mandatory filtering software requirement and would welcome the opportunity for a meaningful dialogue. We believe there should be an open and healthy dialogue on how parental control software can be offered in the market in ways that ensure privacy, system reliability, freedom of expression, the free flow of information, security and user choice."

GNI Statement on Google’s New Approach to China

Date: 
Thursday, January 14, 2010 - 16:00

In reaction to Google's decision to take a new approach to its business operations in China, the Global Network Initiative issued the following statement:
 

Google’s decision to reconsider its business in China is an indication of the tough choices information and communications technology (ICT) companies face around the world where respect for human rights is at risk. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) provides principles, guidelines and support to help companies think through these choices and make decisions that protect freedom of expression and privacy for hundreds of millions of Internet users around the world.
 
It is essential that the global ICT industry and its stakeholders make a public and shared commitment to respect user rights in the face of increased threats to freedom of expression and privacy.  The ICT industry is diverse, and different companies may make different decisions about entering or exiting a market based on specific circumstances such as timing, location, relationships and the nature of a particular product, service or business. There is no “one size fits all” approach to corporate responsibility, nor a single right course of action or script for all to follow.  We invite all ICT companies to participate in the GNI and draw upon the guidance and insights provided by the GNI's principles and guidelines in creating a responsible approach to business decisions.

ICT companies worldwide can use the GNI’s principles, guidelines and tools to assess human rights risk when entering or leaving a market or when designing and introducing new technologies, products or services. By participating in the GNI and working together with human rights groups, investors and academics, ICT companies can benefit from valuable collaboration, accountability, confidential input and collective action. These resources can help companies manage these challenges, maintain credibility and support the privacy and freedom of expression rights of their users.


The GNI’s guidelines indicate that companies should:

  • Establish human rights risk assessment procedures and integrate the findings into business decision-making
  • Require that governments follow established domestic legal processes when they are seeking to restrict freedom of expression and privacy
  • Provide users with clear, prominent and timely notice when access to specific content has been removed or blocked
  • Encourage governments, international organizations and entities to call attention to the worst cases of infringement on the human rights of freedom of expression and privacy
  • Utilize independent assessments of company implementation of the GNI’s principles


About GNI: http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org
Press inquiries: press@globalnetworkinitiative.org

Join us:
General inquiries: info@globalnetworkinitiative.org
Announcements list: http://list.globalnetworkinitiative.org

 

Global Network Initiative Statement on Internet Shutdown in Egypt

Date: 
Friday, January 28, 2011 - 17:12

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is deeply concerned that the people of Egypt have been denied access to Internet and telecommunications services.  This almost unprecedented step has enormous implications for human rights.  

The GNI acknowledges the difficult situation faced by companies that provide Internet and telecommunications services.  We urge companies to take action to protect freedom of expression and privacy, and preserve a free and open Internet.  We urge the Egyptian government to respect its international human rights commitments.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) companies have a primary role in the operation of global communications networks that enable the free flow of information.  All over the world, companies face the challenge of government laws and practices that violate international human rights norms.  Companies can find themselves under duress from governments to operate in ways that go beyond legally accountable law enforcement activities.  In these circumstances, a valuable first step for companies is to be transparent and have human rights principles in place to govern their response.  

GNI can help companies develop strategies to operate in a manner that protects and advances human rights.


GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.  GNI provides resources for ICT companies to help them address difficult issues related to freedom of expression and privacy that they may face anywhere in the world.  GNI has created a framework of principles and a confidential, collaborative approach to working through challenges of corporate responsibility in the ICT sector.

Press inquiries to press@globalnetworkinitiative.org  

GNI commissioned report on the freedom of expression and privacy risks across the ICT sector is published

Date: 
Monday, February 14, 2011 - 15:00

Today sees the publication of a GNI commissioned report, written by BSR "Protecting Human Rights in the Digital Age".  The report describes the evolving freedom of expression and privacy risks faced by information and communications technology (ICT) companies and how these risks can be more effectively mitigated by the industry.  It focuses on the issues for telecommunications services; cell phones and mobile devices; internet services; enterprise software, data storage and IT services, semiconductors and chips, network equipment, consumer electronics and security software.

Read the full report here (pdf).

Statement on WikiLeaks and the Implications for Companies

Date: 
Thursday, December 16, 2010 - 16:00

Recent decisions by some technology companies to restrict access to or sever ties with WikiLeaks highlight the difficulties companies face when governments attempt to restrict controversial information.

The Global Network Initiative does not take a position on WikiLeaks decision to publish these materials or on their content, but is concerned about the implications for freedom of expression and privacy online. As citizens increasingly depend on digital communications in their daily lives, including for political discourse, GNI believes that freedom of expression and human rights must be protected in the following ways:

  • Governments have an obligation to safeguard freedom of expression and must carefully weigh the implications of restricting controversial information—including in cases in which there are concerns of threats to national security or the safety of individuals.  In all cases, such decisions should respect the rule of law and due process. We urge the US government and other governments affected by the WikiLeaks disclosures to adhere to this standard.
  • Companies are, and should be, free to adopt and administer Terms of Use (ToU) policies for the use of the services they provide. Application of these ToU should be transparent and consistent with freedom of expression and privacy implications.
  • Governments have internationally recognized obligations regarding the rights of privacy and freedom of expression of their citizens. ICT companies have the responsibility to protect their customers and ensure that governments respect those rights when they try to restrict expression or provide information on users. When faced with a government request, an ICT company should: (i) determine whether a government action is consistent with the government’s legal and other obligations to their citizens, and, (ii) based on that analysis, implement a decision-making process that protects the freedom of expression and privacy rights of the company’s customers.  
  • Companies need to be transparent with their customers and other users about how they respond to government pressure or demands.  Where possible, companies should notify customers about government requests with sufficient opportunity for them to take steps to protect themselves from or respond to governmental action.


GNI believes that the WikiLeaks document release and the complex issues it has raised about freedom of expression for a wide variety of companies underscores the need for companies to adopt effective policies and procedures to safeguard freedom of expression and privacy.

GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.  GNI provides resources for ICT companies to help them address difficult issues related to freedom of expression and privacy that they may face anywhere in the world.  GNI has created a framework of principles and a confidential, collaborative approach to working through challenges of corporate responsibility in the ICT sector.  

 

Pages

Transparency, National Security, and Protecting Rights Online

Date: 
Friday, June 28, 2013 - 11:14

In light of recent events, the Global Network Initiative calls on the United States and other governments to increase the transparency, oversight, and accountability of laws, regulations, and actions concerning communications surveillance.  

GNI Principles and the rule of law 

GNI’s Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy are rooted in international human rights law, while also recognizing that companies are compelled to obey domestic law in countries where they operate. 

GNI does not underestimate the challenge governments face in finding the appropriate balance between security and privacy and free expression. But international human rights standards set out narrowly defined circumstances under which governments may restrict the rights to free expression and privacy.1  

GNI is particularly concerned by surveillance programs that restrict the right to privacy in the context of inadequate legal safeguards. This is a global problem. Recent statements by U.S. authorities make clear the need for informed public debate on whether legislative and judicial oversight of surveillance that occurs entirely in secret is consistent with international human rights standards and the rule of law. The lack of transparency in the United States around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) interpretations of the FISA Amendments Act and Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, as well as the inability of companies to report on the requests they are receiving, make it difficult for companies operating in the United States to be transparent regarding their efforts to protect free expression and privacy. 

In light of this we call for three specific actions:

1) Create a declassification process for significant legal opinions to inform public debate and enable oversight of government actions. 

GNI supports recently proposed legislation to facilitate declassification of significant legal decisions by the FISC and the FISC Court of Review. We recognize that unclassified summaries of FISC opinions may be necessary in some cases but believe that greater declassification will enable informed public debate as well as improve public oversight of the nature and the scope of the government’s use of FISA authorities. 

2) Revise the provisions that restrict discussion of national security demands. 

While understanding the need for confidentiality in matters of national security, GNI is deeply concerned by the nondisclosure obligations imposed on companies who receive FISA orders and National Security Letters (NSLs). These letters effectively and perpetually prohibit companies from reporting even in general terms, after the fact, on the national security demands they receive.  Policymakers should seriously consider reforms that would require government authorities to make a factual showing to the court to demonstrate that harm would result from disclosure, before issuance or renewal of gag orders, or placing a specific time limit on those orders.

3) Governments—especially those already committed to protecting human rights online—should lead by example and report on their own surveillance requests.

GNI commends the 21 governments of the Freedom Online Coalition for their commitment to protecting free expression and privacy online and urges other governments to follow their lead. 

However, the credibility of their efforts ultimately rests on the example they set through their own domestic laws and policies. Contradictions between countries’ domestic surveillance policies and practices and their foreign policy positions on Internet freedom and openness fundamentally undermine their ability to advocate for other governments to support Internet freedom. 

GNI urges the governments in the Freedom Online Coalition to report on the requests they make for electronic communications surveillance. We also urge them to make it legally possible for companies to report regularly to the public on the government requests that they receive from law enforcement as well as national security authorities. Annual reports, such as the U.S. Wiretap Report and the U.K. Government report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner offer a starting point for more comprehensive disclosure of information about the number of national security surveillance orders made and the number of persons affected. 

Next steps

GNI will advocate strongly with all governments, including the U.S., on behalf of these reforms, which are a prerequisite for informed global public debate on the balance between national security and privacy and freedom of expression rights. We view such transparency reforms as necessary first steps in examining whether domestic law adequately protects the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. All governments have a responsibility to work together with the private sector and civil society to determine the narrowly defined circumstances (based on internationally recognized human rights laws and standards) under which surveillance can take place. We will continue to push for this dialogue and press governments to meet their obligation to protect the rights of freedom of expression and privacy for people all over the world.

 

GNI Statement on Communications Surveillance

Date: 
Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - 09:31

Recent statements by U.S. government officials about communications surveillance programs highlight the need for thoughtful public debate on the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and privacy on the one hand, and legitimate law enforcement and national security precautions, on the other. This is not just about the United States. Communications surveillance by any government raises questions about the clarity, necessity, and proportionality of measures taken and their impact on human rights, including privacy and freedom of expression.

International human rights law and standards provide obligations and guidance as governments, companies, and civil society grapple with the impact of new technology on matters of security and privacy. Just last week, Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights implications of government surveillance in which he stated: “In order to meet their human rights obligations, States must ensure that rights to freedom of expression and privacy are at the heart of their communications surveillance frameworks.” International human rights law sets standards that protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users regardless of citizenship.

The Global Network Initiative urges governments, in the United States and around the world, to strive for greater transparency about their laws, regulations and actions in this sphere. Increased transparency will help inform public debate. As governments continue to grapple with the impact of new surveillance technologies and capabilities, the GNI urges officials to include representatives of the public, private and civil society sectors in their policy deliberations. Free expression and privacy will only be protected if all viewpoints are heard.

GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector. GNI provides resources for ICT companies to help them address difficult issues related to freedom of expression and privacy that they may face anywhere in the world. GNI has created a framework of principles and a confidential, collaborative approach to working through challenges of corporate responsibility in the ICT sector. 

 

A Plan for Rights-Respecting Telecoms


GNI Policy and Communications Director David Sullivan joins a workshop at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan. 

Protecting Human Rights in the Digital Age

Date: 
Friday, February 4, 2011 - 16:49

 

On February 14th, 2011 we announced the publication of a GNI-commissioned report, written by BSR, titled "Protecting Human Rights in the Digital Age". The report describes the evolving freedom of expression and privacy risks faced by information and communications technology (ICT) companies and how these risks can be more effectively mitigated by the industry. It focuses on the issues for telecommunications services; cell phones and mobile devices; internet services; enterprise software, data storage and IT services, semiconductors and chips, network equipment, consumer electronics and security software.

Read the full report here (pdf).

Digital Freedoms in International Law

Date: 
Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 12:30


On June 14th, 2012, GNI released the report “Digital Freedoms in International Law: Practical Steps to Protect Human Rights Online” by Dr. Ian Brown and Professor Douwe Korff. The report examines the challenges facing governments and technology companies as they balance rights to expression and privacy with law enforcement and national security responsibilities. The report draws from extensive research conducted by co-authors Dr. Brown and Professor Korff, including multi-stakeholder consultations held in London, Washington, and New Delhi.

To download the executive summary, click here

To download the full report, click here

 

GNI Hosts Online Debate on the UK Communications Data Bill

Date: 
Monday, December 17, 2012 - 16:49

Susan Morgan hosts a Google Big Tent Hangout discussing the UK draft Communications Data Bill, featuring Lord Paul Strasburger, member of the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee, and Jamie Bartlett from Demos.

Read the GNI statement on the report of the UK Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill. 

GNI Welcomes Report on UK Draft Communications Data Bill

Date: 
Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - 08:49

The Global Network Initiative welcomes the report of the UK Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill and the Prime Minister’s commitment to rewrite the legislation. “The UK government has an important responsibility to protect the public, but the proposed bill does not strike the right balance with privacy rights,” says GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan. “The report of the Scrutiny Committee, which reflects evidence submitted by a wide range of experts, points the way to a thorough reconsideration of how the government should approach this issue.”

The Joint Committee appointed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords has been examining the draft bill, which proposes to update UK legislation that details the conditions under which law enforcement agencies access communications data. The report concludes that “the current draft Bill is too sweeping, and goes further than it need or should,” and that more consultation is necessary before redrafted legislation is introduced.

“The UK government has an opportunity to develop an approach that would serve as a model for the rest of the world, but the draft bill does not succeed in this respect,” says Morgan. “The government should consider the wider international context and narrow the focus of the legislation as it rethinks its approach.”

In evidence submitted to the Committee, GNI identified specific concerns regarding how the Bill would broaden the collection and retention of new data on anyone in the UK using communications services, and its troublesome assertions of jurisdiction over non-UK based communications services. GNI is also particularly concerned with the possible unintended consequences of the legislation that could undermine the UK’s ability to support and further freedom of expression and privacy rights internationally. It is not in the broader interests of the UK to initiate legislation that could give authoritarian regimes justification for their approach to communications data.

 

Event: The Communications Data Bill: ‘Snoopers’ charter’, or safeguarding our security?

Date: 
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 09:56

Date: Thursday October 18, 10.30am – 12pm
Venue: Free Word Centre, London
Tickets: By invitation only. Please email eve@indexoncensorship.org to request a place.

Index on Censorship and the Global Network Initiative will be hosting this on-the-record panel discussion considering the government’s planned legislation around our communications online. John Kampfner will chair a panel featuring Emma Ascroft (Director, Public Policy, Yahoo! Europe), Jeremy Browne MP (Home Office, tbc), Dr Ian Brown (Associate Director, Cyber Security Centre, and Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Internet Institute) and Kirsty Hughes (Chief Executive, Index on Censorship).

Key questions to be covered:

  • Do we need the Communications Data Bill to ensure as good online protection against criminal and terrorist behaviour as offline?
  • Can we protect privacy and free expression, while ensuring good security protection?
  • How will the government ensure protection against misuse of the vast amounts of data collected across all of the public, and across all types of communications activity?

The invited audience will be made up of influential policy, media, corporate, civil society and government representatives. This a key opportunity for frank discussion on the questions that arise in balancing free expression, privacy and security. It will be on the record.

GNI Comments on UK Draft Communications Data Bill

Date: 
Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - 09:39

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) submitted the following written evidence to the Joint Committee of Parliament currently considering the UK Government's proposed Draft Communications Data Bill (C8359). Our submission has been published on the Committee website alongside other submissions. 

Global Network Initiative
Written Evidence to the Communications Data Bill Joint Scrutiny Committee
Author: Susan Morgan, Executive Director, Global Network Initiative

Date: 23 August 2012

1. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) welcomes the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Communications Data Bill Joint Scrutiny Committee. We have three specific concerns that we detail in our submission:

a)    Broadening the collection and retention of new data on anyone in the UK using communications services;

b)    The assertion of jurisdiction over non-UK based communications service providers when services are accessed in the UK;

c)    A reserve power that would empower the Home Secretary to require UK providers to capture and retain data (specifically and only for law enforcement purposes) if requirements to capture and retain data cannot be directly imposed on a non-UK provider.

2. GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the Information Communications and Technology (ICT) sector. GNI has developed a set of Principles and Implementation Guidelines to guide responsible company action when facing requests from governments around the world that could impact on the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users. These Principles and Implementation Guidelines are based on international human rights standards and are attached to this written evidence in Appendix A. Appendix B has a full list of participants and observers of GNI. 

3. It is the duty of governments to respect, protect, promote and fulfil human rights, including to ensure that national laws, regulations and policies are consistent with international human rights laws standards. GNI acknowledges the duty of a government to protect its citizens and public safety. It is right that governments consider how the changing communications landscape impacts policing operations and efforts to protect national security. However, the approach taken must reflect the few and limited circumstances within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that provide for the limitation of these rights. Finding the right approach is not easy, particularly in the global, complex, and constantly evolving ICT sector.  

4. No other democratic nation has proposed the approach set out in this Bill. The UK plays an important leadership role in the development of international legal standards and has far reaching influences on policy thinking generally. This includes the development of policy and legal frameworks relating to communications technology and the protection of human rights. For example, the UK used its convening power to assemble government, industry and civil society representatives to the London Conference on Cyberspace in October 2011, the first gathering of its kind that brought together the cyber-security community with the human rights community.[1] The UK also engaged early to help form an international coalition of governments now working together on freedom of expression on the Internet.[2]  

 5. There are very active debates internationally on the future of Internet governance.  Several proposals, including one at the UN General Assembly for a code of conduct on information security are indicative of efforts by repressive regimes to exert a greater degree of control over the Internet.  This could include placing greater requirements on companies.[3]
 

6. Whilst these broader issues are outside the direct scope of the UK Communications Data Bill, they demonstrate the wider international context within which the draft Bill sits. We urge the Committee to consider the global context in its scrutiny of the draft Bill and be mindful of possible unintended consequences that could undermine the UK’s ability to support and further freedom of expression and privacy rights internationally.  We would suggest it is not in the broader interests of the UK to initiate legislation that could give authoritarian regimes justification for their approach.
 

Specific comments on the Communications Data Bill
 

7. The Bill broadens the collection and retention of new data on anyone in the UK using communications services. This includes requirements to generate data—not required for business purposes and not routinely collected by providers—specifically and only for the purpose of law enforcement access. This provision goes beyond the existing requirements under the Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the EU’s Data Retention Directive. 
 

8. This aspect of the Bill could set a powerful precedent for repressive regimes to follow when seeking to justify surveillance on their own populations.  Regimes attempt to claim legitimacy for their actions when they are able to point to similar requirements, even if only in the form of policy statements or draft legislation, in leading democratic nations. An example of exactly this type of reaction came from China in response to statements made in Parliament by the Prime Minister David Cameron in the days following the riots in 2011 around the need to consider placing limits on social networks and allowing greater government access to user communications in certain circumstances.[4]
 

9. This is an enabling Bill that would require secondary legislation or Notices/Orders to be fully implemented. It is not clear whether secondary legislation or Orders, including those that would specify the data sets to be collected, would be made public. These details should be made available so that stakeholders and Parliament can make proper assessments about proportionality and the impact of the Government’s proposals. 
 

10. Technological advances are also blurring the distinction between communications data and content that is at the heart of this Bill. For example, the URL for a web address can provide considerable access to information about the type of content the user is viewing. Stakeholders must be reassured that communications data could be reliably extracted without also disclosing content. Taken alongside the expanded scope of data collection for anyone using communications services in the UK this must be considered when assessing the proportionality of the proposals.
 

11. The assertion of jurisdiction over non-UK-based communications service providers when services are accessed in the UK is problematic. Companies considering the provision of services in markets where free expression and privacy rights may be at risk may consider ways to manage and operate their services to mitigate human rights risks. This is one of the requirements in GNI’s Principles. It is also consistent within the UN Protect, Respect and Remedy framework and Guiding Principles.[5]  We have seen worrying trends in legislative proposals in a range of countries that hold intermediaries liable for the activities of their users in ways that could have serious implications for free speech. One example is the draft Internet decree by the Government of Vietnam that places requirements on foreign providers not located in Vietnam to collaborate with the government in the filtering of a wide variety of information such as that which could “undermine the fine customs and traditions of the nation”. Whilst filtering requirements and retention of communications data are not analogous, assertions of jurisdiction are. The draft Bill could provide unintended justification for actions by other governments. The UK Government should consider these consequences, including the impact of laws enacted in other jurisdictions on the privacy rights of UK citizens as it prepares this legislation.
 

12. Even if other jurisdictions do not enact similar or contrary laws, UK citizens’ data could still be at jeopardy. Once other governments become aware of the storage of this additional communications data, law enforcement entities in other jurisdictions will seek to obtain it as well. If ICT companies are required to obtain and retain communications data for UK residents law enforcement entities in other jurisdictions could have a legitimate claim to seek access to it. Non-UK law enforcement entities may either try to obtain it through UK law enforcement or by exerting pressure on companies to release the data without UK cooperation.
 

13. A reserve power proposed in the Bill would empower the Home Secretary to require UK providers to capture and retain data (again, specifically and only for law enforcement purposes) if requirements cannot be directly imposed on a non-UK provider. Setting aside the technical challenges of whether this can be done, there are two specific problems. First, this requirement could have the effect of increasing pressure on non-UK providers to cooperate with law enforcement in informal, voluntary agreements. In contrast, GNI’s Implementation Guidelines commit companies to encourage governments to be “specific, transparent and consistent in the demands, laws, and regulations” they issue. Secondly, although we understand the challenge that law enforcement faces in regard to accessing communications data in a timely fashion, proposals to address this issue should begin with existing processes. If processes such as mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs) are insufficiently fleet of foot, then government should initiate a concerted effort to review and improve them. This would be a far more proportionate response to the legitimate concern that data may not be available by the time a lawful request is served on a provider. In June 2012 a GNI commissioned report recommended that access to data through the MLAT process needs to be made more efficient, with safeguards in place.[6] 
 

Conclusion 

14. As it considers this legislation, the committee has an opportunity to guide government on how the legitimate needs of law enforcement can be consistent with international human rights standards. It has the opportunity to develop an approach that would serve as a worthy model for other countries. The draft Bill does not succeed in this respect. We recommend that more time be taken and revisions considered to ensure that the rights of individuals are respected, so as to shape a regime that the UK would be comfortable having copied by other governments.




[2] See “Freedom Online: Joint Action for Free Expression on the Internet”, The Hague, 9 December 2011, available at http://www.minbuza.nl/binaries/content/assets/minbuza/en/the_ministry/declaration-final-v-14dec.pdf.

[3] “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” presented to UN General Assembly 12 September 2011, http://news.dot-nxt.com/2011/09/13/china-russia-security-code-of-conduct.

[4] Global Times, “Riots lead to rethink of Internet freedom”, 13 August 2011, available at http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/670718/Riots-lead-to-rethink-of-Internet-freedom.aspx.

5 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations 'Protect, Respect and Remedy' Framework", available at http://www.business-humanrights.org/SpecialRepPortal/Home/Protect-Respect-Remedy-Framework/GuidingPrinciples.

[6] Ian Brown and Douwe Korff, “Digital Freedoms in International Law: Practical Steps to Protect Human Rights Online”, June 2012, available at http://www.globalnetworkinitiative.org/news/new-report-outlines-recommendations-governments-companies-and-others-how-protect-free

New Report Outlines Recommendations for Governments, Companies and Others on How to Protect Free Expression and Privacy Rights Online

Date: 
Thursday, June 14, 2012 - 07:03

Governments, companies, and other stakeholders can collaborate to protect rights to freedom of expression and privacy online, according to the authors of “Digital Freedoms in International Law: Practical Steps to Protect Human Rights Online” released today. The report, co-authored by Dr. Ian Brown and Professor Douwe Korff, examines the challenges facing governments and technology companies as they balance rights to expression and privacy with law enforcement and national security responsibilities. 

"We hope this report will help governments and companies protect human rights and public safety online, especially in countries where the Internet is playing a key role in political debate and activism," said Dr. Brown. 

The report draws from extensive research conducted by co-authors Dr. Brown and Professor Korff, including multi-stakeholder consultations held in London, Washington, and New Delhi. 

"The new global-digital environment poses challenges to the application of traditional human rights standards, for states, companies and NGOs,” said Professor Korff. “In our report, we have tried to identify those challenges and formulate tentative recommendations on how to meet them.  We hope this will lead to a wide debate, involving all stakeholders.'"

“GNI commissioned this report in order to engage on some of the most difficult and complicated questions about how to protect freedom of expression and privacy rights,” said GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan. “We hope it provokes a dialogue and debate that, over time, leads to practical steps that make a positive difference in how governments, companies, and other stakeholders address these issues.”

To download the executive summary, click here

To download the full report, click here

GNI is a multi-stakeholder group of companies, civil society organizations (including human rights and press freedom groups), investors and academics, who have created a collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector. GNI provides resources for ICT companies to help them address difficult issues related to freedom of expression and privacy that they may face anywhere in the world. GNI has created a framework of principles and a confidential, collaborative approach to working through challenges of corporate responsibility in the ICT sector.

 

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