On November 6, 2014, the Global Network Initiative and the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue held the first of two 2014 Joint Learning Forum events in Sunnyvale, California at the headquarters of LinkedIn. The theme of the event was Transparency and Human Rights in the Digital Age.

The event opened with welcoming remarks from Pablo Chavez on behalf of LinkedIn, Mark Stephens, GNI Independent Chair, and Jeffrey Dygert from AT&T on behalf of the Industry Dialogue.

Representatives of ICT companies, civil society organizations, the investor community, academia, and the United States government convened in three discussion panels over the course of the day. Each panel considered a specific issue related to Transparency and Human Rights in the Digital Age.

Panel 1: Why does transparency matter for protecting and respecting rights online?

Arvind Ganesan, Director of Business and Human Rights, Human Rights Watch

Michael Samway, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Arvind Ganesan began by remarking that the worst human rights abuses often occur in the most closed societies. Transparency is therefore a precursor to human rights progress, since we must first know about a company’s activities before we can determine whether it respects and promotes human rights. This applies also to governments, since debates about government surveillance and data collection procedures cannot yield substantive policy recommendations without information on the nature of the government’s activities.

Michael Samway agreed and added that, beyond the normative and policy imperatives, the business case for transparency is also strong. Transparent business practices engender consumer trust and, by acting transparently, companies can distance themselves from the government and its actions. This point was revisited later in the conference when panelists discussed the German government’s cancellation of a multi-million dollar contract with Verizon due to concerns over US intelligence agencies’ access to Verizon customers’ data.

Panel 2: What is the current state of transparency reporting by companies and governments, and how it could be improved?

Steve Crown, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, Microsoft

Jeffrey Dygert, Executive Director of Public Policy, AT&T

Jason Pielemeier, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State

Pranesh Prakash, Policy Director, Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore

Moderated by Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President, Sustainability Research and Policy, Calvert Investments

All panelists agreed that transparency reporting is a necessary component of a robust accountability framework but does not, of itself, create a transparent system.

Pranesh Prakash took this point further, noting that the transparency reports themselves are currently too narrow in scope, and should be expanded to cover all content removal or user data dissemination, not only those instances related to government requests.

Jason Pielemeier reflected on how revelations about national security surveillance have impacted efforts to promote global Internet freedom, noting that the Freedom Online Coalition could play a role developing human rights standards.

Jeffrey Dygert said that transparency reports have helped AT&T define and strengthen its standards on responding to government requests, noting that public scrutiny supports the development of company positions and standards. Steve Crown from Microsoft explained that transparency reports vary across companies, sectors, and jurisdiction, and that Microsoft works on the basis that a state has jurisdiction

over the company if its servers are located there.

Questions from the floor touched upon company disclosure policies and practices, and questioned whether the U.S. interpretations of international human rights standards interfere with companies’ responsibility to respect human rights.

Panel 3: How do companies communicate with their users in response to live events?

Ben Blink, Senior Policy Analyst, Free Expression and International Relations, Google

Patrik Hiselius, Senior Advisor, Digital Rights, TeliaSonera

Rebecca MacKinnon, Director, Ranking Digital Rights Project, New America Foundation

Hemanshu Nigam, CEO, SSP Blue

Sana Saleem, Director, Bolo Bhi

Moderated by Cynthia Wong, Senior Internet Researcher, Human Rights Watch

Cynthia Wong opened this session by focusing in on how companies communicate with users, who generally have little idea how surveillance occurs.

Sana Saleem from the Pakistan-based civil society organization Bolo Bhi described the challenges arising from the different ways that companies are responding to requests from the Government of Pakistan and underscored the need for greater understanding of the political and legal environment to better protect and respect rights.

Rebecca MacKinnon added that companies are learning from mistakes in the past to buid trust and improve relationships with civil society organizations and activists on the ground in challenging environments. Ben Blink described Google’s efforts to communicate with users in response to the ruling of the European Court of Justice on the “right to be forgotten.”

Patrik Hiselius described the constraints that companies face on what they can say in response to challenging situations, and the progress that TeliaSonera has made aggregating what information they can report on what is going on, as they have recently done in response to events in Tajikistan.

Hemanshu Nigam from SSP Blue has worked for both law enforcement and for companies and explained that some events can force a company to make an invidious choice between the rights of its employees and the rights of its users. In such situations it is particularly important that companies clearly communicate to their users the complexity of the dilemma they face and the reasons why certain decisions were made.

Closing the event, GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan said that the ideas discussed today would be taken up in Geneva in December and inform GNI and the Industry Dialogue’s ongoing efforts to share best practices and find means to advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.