The Global Network Initiative (GNI) has completed the world’s first independent assessment of technology companies’ policies and procedures for responding to government requests affecting free speech and privacy.  The organization’s second annual report, released today, describes the assessment process undertaken by the founding GNI companies—Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!.

GNI’s member companies commit to a set of principles on free expression and privacy and to have their implementation of the principles be independently assessed.

According to the report, GNI’s Board, which includes human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academics, found that the assessments indicate the companies have made progress in adopting policies and procedures for dealing with government requests that could threaten the freedom of expression and privacy rights of users.

“These assessments demonstrate that the companies are putting into place the policies and processes to implement the GNI Principles,” said GNI Executive Director Susan Morgan. “Each company is taking its own approach to implementation and we’re starting to see some different examples of how the companies are meeting their commitments.”

These first assessments focused on the steps the companies have taken so far to implement the GNI Principles. Assessments due to begin in late 2012 will explore how these mechanisms are deployed in practice.

Each company’s assessment produced different recommendations, but the types of recommendations made for the companies to consider include: engaging more directly with human rights groups and experts when conducting risk assessments; improving the sharing of information to help drive public policy engagement with governments; and documenting the process for conducting human rights impact assessments, updating it as new policy or legislative developments are identified.

“The use of independent assessors presented challenges for the companies. But we’ve had valuable insight on how we can develop our use of assessors as we deepen our collaboration with other stakeholders,” said Steve Crown, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft and a GNI Board member.

“Balancing rights to free expression and privacy with government requests is no easy task for ICT companies. These assessments are an important milestone demonstrating the value of a collaborative, but rigorous approach,” said Arvind Ganesan, Director of Business and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch and GNI Board member. “We look forward to continuing to work with GNI’s member companies to ensure their respect for human rights and to welcome new members willing to take on this challenge.”

GNI has also learned from the assessment process this year and will consider several opportunities for improvement. Among the topics GNI will consider are: developing recommendations on training company Board Directors on freedom of expression and privacy concerns; helping to improve the information sources for companies conducting human rights impact assessments; and developing recommendations on the review of vendor contracts put in place by companies before the formation of GNI.

“The companies are far from perfect, but the point is to work with them so that they can take practical and meaningful steps to improve. GNI’s membership is learning together from this assessment process,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and GNI Board member.

GNI’s membership has grown substantially in the last year, having gained nine new participant organizations from six countries. “GNI is not only demonstrating its credibility with the completion of these first assessments of member companies, but also its utility as a forum for collective learning and policy engagement,” said Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President of Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investments and Secretary of the Board of GNI. “The recent addition of new member companies and other organizations with different perspectives has only reinforced this role.”

“This report marks an important milestone for efforts to protect freedom of expression and privacy online in the face of government demands to limit or circumscribe service,” said Meg Roggensack, Senior Advisor for Business and Human Rights at Human Rights First and GNI Board Member. “Companies need to be accountable to their customers if progress is to be achieved in addressing threats to Internet freedom. GNI’s founding companies have made a shared commitment to be independently assessed on their progress, and they deserve credit for making this commitment.”