The Global Network Initiative (GNI) reached a critical milestone this week when it published its first independent assessment of Internet companies on their fulfillment of commitments to meet GNI’s principles and guidelines on free expression and privacy. The report showed that the three companies examined – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo – are all meeting those rigorous standards. This is an important result because it shows that the world’s leading Internet companies are embracing these fundamental human rights principles and making them an institutionalized company practice. At the same time, it is important to remember that compliance is not about perfection. It is about continuous improvement and the independent assessments revealed areas where companies may need to focus additional attention.
This first assessment, coming in the midst of the barrage of disclosures about NSA data collection programs, also illustrates the limits of independent assessment when it comes to company responses to government intelligence demands. Companies are legally bound to secrecy under US national security law, making it impossible to assess compliance on national security-related requests.
The NSA revelations however, also clearly show that corporate due diligence alone cannot ensure protection of privacy and free expression. Ultimately, governments are responsible for protecting these rights, and companies must operate within the parameters of established law.
It’s exactly where this established law falls short that the GNI principles and guidelines excel. The GNI principles encourage companies to pushback and challenge the law when necessary, and also to actively engage in policy reform where possible. GNI companies are taking this obligation to heart, as evidenced by their aggressive efforts to provide more transparency to users and by their recent call for global reform to surveillance laws.
It is important to recognize however that GNI’s mission is a focused one: to help companies respect human rights and chart an accountable path through the privacy and free expressions challenges posed by government demands. Importantly, they do not address commercial data collection that may raise privacy concerns, especially as company held data is becoming the fuel for government surveillance..
GNI has come a long way in its short four years of existence and the completion of successful company assessments is welcome progress.
Last Monday, I attended an important hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that addressed the U.S. security surveillance programs and the implications for freedom of expression. This was the first time the U.S. has been called on to speak about its surveillance programs in front of an international human rights body, and its response was less than satisfying. After compelling testimony from a panel assembled by the ACLU, the U.S. representative announced that the…