GNI Report Details Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft’s Assessments of Human Rights Impact

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First is praising today’s release of the Global Network Initiative’s (GNI) public report on assessments of founding company members, noting the report is a major and welcome milestone  in protecting user privacy and strengthening consumer trust in the face of increasing government demands to limit or circumscribe service.

The GNI was established in 2008 with the goal of protecting online freedom of expression and privacy in the face of government pressure to comply with domestic laws which may run up against international human rights norms.  The multi-stakeholder group is comprised of companies, investors, academics, and civil society organizations, including Human Rights First, a member of GNI’s Board of Directors.

“The founding GNI company members – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! – deserve credit for their commitment to GNI and their willingness to submit to independent assessments of their efforts to protect online freedom of expression and privacy when responding to government demands,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “As the U.N. Guiding Principles provide, all companies should know the human rights impacts of their global operations and show that they are taking steps to address them.”

According to Human Rights First, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are the first companies in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector that can back their public statements with a credible and independent human rights impact review. Human Rights First actively championed the important role of independent assessments in helping to envision, and then to establish, the Global Network Initiative.

“Our two decades’ long engagement with companies to address human rights concerns has taught us that where governments are unable or unwilling to regulate, multistakeholder initiatives can and should provide  both a set of principles to guide company behavior and independent assessments of company efforts to  live up to those agreed upon principles,” added Stahnke.

The GNI assessments covered by today’s report highlight some of the continuing challenges that companies face in seeking to promote the human rights of free expression and user privacy. While the three founding GNI companies selected only current services to be covered by this first round of independent assessments, as the pace of technology innovation – and acquisition – intensifies, companies will need to redouble their commitments to ensure that the GNI principles extend to their emerging business activities and partnerships. Similarly, as their customer base shifts from the United States and Europe to the rest of the world, companies should ensure that implementation of their human rights policies is informed by local stakeholders through robust and ongoing engagement.

“As services and innovation continue to expand around the world, including to places where human rights are not prioritized, transparent communication with users about companies’ responses to government requests will be vital,” Stahnke observed.

According to today’s report, GNI learned several lessons from the initial round of independent assessments. Among the most important is that assessment isn’t an end in itself. The valuable insights and suggestions for company improvement offered by the assessment teams should now be adopted and implemented.

Stahnke explained, “GNI has an important role to play in helping companies understand the lessons learned, guiding their incorporation into everyday business practices, and reporting back to the public on this important and necessary progress. But the other critical lesson is that despite the companies’ commitment to the GNI Principles, and evident progress in implementing them, the GNI is still at a very early stage of trust-building.”

Human Rights First hopes that following today’s report, the GNI Board will continue its conversation with multistakeholder initiative members so that greater transparency within GNI  will  lead to further company progress in protecting the rights of internet users around the world.

Of note, the assessments detailed today took place against the backdrop of almost daily revelations about the NSA’s surveillance program and the scope of the United States Government’s requests for company information on users. The GNI was not able to assess company policies and responses to these requests because of limits on company disclosure.

Human Rights First joins with its GNI Board colleagues in urging greater transparency as to the NSA surveillance program. It encourages GNI founding companies to take advantage of the current public debate to continue to challenge U.S. requests for private information and to promote greater judicial independence in reviewing and responding to such challenges.

Stahnke concluded, “The concerns that sparked GNI’s creation stemmed from the policies of repressive governments with weak or compromised legal systems. In the opposite environment, where active challenge does not pose risks to personnel or commercial license to operate, companies have wide latitude to engage and resist government demands that infringe on free expression and privacy. GNI should seize the opportunities that the current crisis affords to promote its principles actively and effectively not only around the globe but also right here in the United States.”


Published on January 8, 2014


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