By Elisa Massimino
President and CEO, Human Rights First
Recent press stories about the Global Network Initiative (GNI) paint a distorted picture, judging the Initiative’s effectiveness and impact based primarily on the number of companies that have joined the effort to date. That’s the wrong yardstick. While the GNI seeks to secure a sector-wide commitment to uphold basic principles of privacy and free expression and to provide companies with framework for decision-making that will deliver on these commitments, the real measure of success (and, ultimately, the key to attracting more companies to join) will be whether corporate members—to date, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!—are making business decisions that uphold their commitments.
Human Rights First joined the GNI because we believe that it has the potential to address the human rights impacts of global business operations. The GNI brought together highly independent companies—each of which had faced challenges in resisting government demands for censorship of content and disclosure of user information—under a single multi-stakeholder initiative with a common goal—to identify ways to resist government demands that limit freedom of expression and privacy and to improve business decision-making to better protect these rights.
The GNI provides member companies with access to expertise and information about how global operations impact free expression and privacy rights, and space for discussion and learning about strategies for protecting them. For us, as a human rights organization, the effectiveness of the GNI will be demonstrated through independent assessments of member companies’ efforts to adopt and implement policies and procedures to implement the GNI’s guidelines and uphold the principles to which member companies committed themselves at the outset. Shared learning has value—companies that go it alone in this space are likely to make costly mistakes–but it is independent assessment that distinguishes GNI from a trade association, coalition or public policy forum. Independent assessment will help to ensure that GNI member companies are publicly accountable for their commitments, and that the GNI can demonstrate progress in promoting freedom of expression and privacy in the internet and telecommunications sector. The first round of assessments have not yet been made — they are tentatively scheduled to begin this summer — and the GNI is still in the process of making key decisions that will determine how thorough and independent those assessments will be.
The GNI is often asked why no additional companies have joined yet. Some have suggested that the GNI charter requirement that member companies open their human rights compliance system to independent inspection makes some companies nervous. It’s true that GNI member companies have signed up for a rigorous verification mechanism as part of their membership. But that is because we founding members—companies, NGOs, investors and academics—understood that independent assessment is the key to GNI’s credibility.
Companies outside the GNI can claim that they are working to promote freedom of expression and privacy, and that they’ve adopted policies and procedures along the lines of GNI requirements. Some have made these claims. And while pledges to uphold free expression and privacy are welcome, without an outside, independent assessment, the public has no way of verifying that these pledges are being implemented consistently, or whether they are effective in addressing threats to freedom of expression and privacy. This independent assessment is what the GNI is designed to do and on which its success, or failure, should be judged.
Of course membership in the GNI does not guarantee that a company’s policies on Internet freedom will ultimately produce the right result in every case. Governments intent on violating users’ human rights are innovative and relentless. But, because of GNI’s system of independent assessment, member companies—and the public—can be assured that company decision-making will be transparent, and assessed against a common and credible standard. That credibility will create pressure from users on other companies to join the GNI, and will demonstrate the value of the initiative to skeptics in the private sector. Our ultimate goal is a realistic one: not perfection, but demonstrated, reasonable steps– independently verified and assessed–to anticipate, prepare for, and resist pressure from governments to infringe on human rights. At the end of the day, if those criteria are met, the GNI should be judged a success.