WASHINGTON, DC—The Global Network Initiative today released a public report on the independent assessments of founding companies Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The assessments looked at cases of government requests implicating the rights of Internet users, and found that each company is making a good faith effort to implement GNI’s Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy, and to improve over time.
“These independent assessments—the first of their kind—present a major step forward on human rights accountability in the technology sector,” said GNI Board Chair Jermyn Brooks. “They demonstrated in the many specific cases examined how companies, applying the GNI Principles, have in fact been able to limit the removal of content and the release of personal data as a result of government requests,” he continued.
The assessments focused on products and services that in the company’s view posed the most salient risks to freedom of expression and privacy—search, email, and photo and video sharing services—with cases identified through a process that included consultation with GNI’s non-company members. The report presents information in aggregate or anonymized form in order to allow public disclosure of how the companies review and respond to government requests without disclosing confidential information. The report also details examples of the recommendations made by the assessors to one or more companies. The process did not and cannot determine whether the companies have acted appropriately with respect to each of the many thousands of requests received each year from governments.
“The GNI’s report today is an important window into the actions companies have taken as a result of their embrace of the GNI Principles to respect and protect their users’ freedom of expression and privacy rights when faced with government restrictions or demands,” said Tad Stahnke, GNI Board Member and Director of Policy and Programs at Human Rights First. “Freedom of expression and privacy are under attack globally, and the GNI Principles help protect those rights through the companies assessing risks to privacy and free expression from local law and taking measures to mitigate those risks. We encourage companies in some circumstances to use legal means to challenge government requests that may violate human rights, and to participate in policy discussions toward the end of bringing local laws into alignment with human rights standards.”
Although news headlines during the past six months have brought to the world’s attention the surveillance practices of the United States and other governments, it was not possible to assess the way in which companies respond to U.S. national security requests because of the restrictions under U.S. law that prohibit the companies from disclosing any information related to such requests. This strengthens GNI’s belief that legal and policy reform is necessary and advocacy for increased transparency and other changes will be a greater part of our work in the future.
“Internet users who care about their civil liberties and human rights online can gain confidence that these three companies are taking tangible steps to protect the freedom of expression and right to privacy online,” said Bennett Freeman, GNI Board Secretary and Calvert Investments Senior VP for Sustainability Research and Policy. “So too can investors who have reason to worry about the prospects of companies who must maintain user trust to succeed globally in an age of rising anxiety over censorship and surveillance.”