announced that they're going to do something about it. Some time tomorrow a new website will launch at www.globalnetworkinitiative.org where we'll be able to see the fruits of two years of labor preparing a strategy for supporting human rights and operating in troubled markets, at the same time.We've long been critical of concessions that the big web companies make to authoritarian governments around the world, but today Google, Yahoo and others
Will this be of any consequence? We like former CNN journalist turned human rights campaigning blogger Rebecca MacKinnon's take on it: maybe.
A Brief History of Human Rights Violations
What kinds of things have these companies done that are being frowned up?
- "In April 2004, the Chinese journalist Shi Tao used his Yahoo! email account to send a message to a U.S.-based pro-democracy website. In his email, he summarized a government order directing media organizations in China to downplay the upcoming 15th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Police arrested him in November 2004, charging him with 'illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.' Authorities used email account holder information supplied by Yahoo! to convict Shi Tao in April 2005 and sentence him to 10 years in prison." - Amnesty International
- Google censors images and other information in China when the government deems the content unacceptable.
Image from Search Engine Watch
- YouTube shut down, then reinstated but erased, an Egyptian activist's YouTube account filled with videos documenting police brutality. It appears that after some time YouTube has since reposted the man's videos after continued international pressure.
Is This Going to Change?
These are a few examples of the kinds of issues the new Global Network Initiative will likely engage with. Will the Initiative have any teeth? We're skeptical, this isn't the first time these companies have promised to do better by their users. It's hard because their fundamental drive is to monetize these huge markets. We have a lot of respect for Rebecca MacKinnon's take on it, which we excerpt at length below.
Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Human Rights First, and the Committee to Protect Journalists would not be putting their reputations behind this thing if they didn't think it was meaningful.
That said, the initiative must prove its value in the next couple of years by implementing a meaningful and sufficiently tough process by which companies' adherence to the principles will be evaluated and benchmarked. If there is a rigorous process that rates the companies' behavior, then investors who care about social responsibility, and users who want to know how trustworthy a given company is compared to others, can make more informed choices.
The initiative is based on the reality that there is pretty much no country on earth - including the United States - where governments aren't pressuring telecoms and Internet companies to do things that potentially violate users' rights to privacy and free expression. Companies must consider the right to free expression and privacy of users in all markets to be part and parcel of what it means to be socially responsible. Part of the problem is that many telecoms and Internet companies just have not been thinking through
these issues as they roll out products and services around the globe, resulting in all kinds of unintended consequences - the TOM-Skype fiasco in which Skype's Chinese business partner was found to have allowed a huge security breach being the latest example. The Initiative is about getting companies to think ahead and incorporate human rights assessments into new product plans or plans to enter new markets. It's also about being more transparent and honest with your users about what's being censored, why and how, and informing them about how and with whom their personal data is being stored and shared. That way, users can make informed choices about how and when it is safe or reliable to use these services - or not.