The Global Network Initiative: Confronting Human Rights Challenges in the Information & Communications Technology Sector

The Global Network Initiative ("GNI") released its first annual report (.pdf) last month. This is a milestone worth celebrating by all who continue to believe in the power of the information and communications technology ("ICT") sector to promote freedom and development (and development as freedom) worldwide.

Although the changes wrought in the last decade by the proliferation of ICT companies to the furthest reaches of the globe are almost unimaginable, the first decade of the new century has seen a decided dampening of the panglossian optimism that surrounded the early growth of what was then called the "information superhighway.” The myth that cyberspace is a sphere whose very architecture prevents governments from extending their writ there has now been shattered. 

As the GNI’s inaugural annual report documents, some 40 countries worldwide – ranging from authoritarian China to antipodean Australia – filter internet content with varying degrees of effectiveness and heavy-handedness; and practically every government in the world has asked ICT companies to turn over user-identifying data for purposes ranging from bona fide law enforcement to the suppression of dissent.

Founded as they were by young idealists who believed in the early conception of cyberspace as an information commons, many ICT companies were initially caught off guard by government demands to disclose information that could pierce the cloak of anonymity behind which many internet users believed they were operating. Following criticism from civil society groups, academic commentators, and socially responsible investors for their responses to such incidents, the GNI was founded as a multi-stakeholder organization bringing together these disparate actors to develop a set of principles to protect and promote privacy and free expression online from unwarranted government intrusion.

As its inaugural annual report documents, the GNI has made substantial progress in furthering its four goals of fostering accountability, promoting policy engagement, enabling shared learning between its member organizations, and perhaps most importantly, establishing a framework for responsible company decision-making and action in responding to government requests. What is more, the GNI’s report documents how its core principles have already been put into effect by its three current corporate members, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!:

  • Faced with revelations that its servers in China were being attacked to obtain information pertaining to human rights activists, Google decided to restructure its activities in that market by discontinuing its filtered search services.
  • Following media reports that prosecutors in Russia were harassing nettlesome NGOs by trumping up charges that they were pirating Microsoft software, the software giant consulted widely in the human rights community — including with its GNI partners — to develop a special licensing program for eligible organizations in certain countries.
  • Finally, prior to expanding its polyglot offerings to yet another language, Yahoo! decided to manage and operate its new Vietnamese-language services from Singapore, owing to the stronger regulatory environment for protecting user privacy offered by the island-state.

With the recent appointment of its first-ever executive director, Susan Morgan, and an independent chair, Jermyn Brooks, the GNI is set to build on its already impressive accomplishments and continue to articulate the defining set of best practices on how to manage the unintended human rights consequences of the information revolution. Other ICT companies – particularly from the hardware and Web 2.0 sectors – would do well to take advantage of the opportunity for multi-stakeholder engagement that the GNI presents, before they too come face to face with the unintended consequences of their technologies.

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