5-17-2012By Meg Roggensack and Marshall Thompson
Business and Human Rights
What investors should know ahead of Facebook’s IPO.
- Much of Facebook’s IPO projected income depends on entry into China, a nation that is hostile to privacy and free expression.
But what is Facebook’s plan for staying in China? Google quit China after determining that dealing with authorities undermined its brand and put its trade secrets at risk. China, like other oppressive countries, is hostile to privacy and free expression. To operate in China, Facebook would likely have to partner with search engine giant Baidu, which already complies with China’s censorship regime, the Great Firewall.Censorship is standard operating procedure in China; that’s the cost of doing business there. But the Chinese government is likely to demand more than just compliance with the Great Firewall. If it asks Facebook for information about activists — which it could easily do under its overly broad state secrets law — would Facebook provide it?
There are undoubtedly some things Facebook would refuse to do under government pressure. Where and how will it draw those lines? Does Facebook have policies to guide such decisions? Will it make them public? An ad hoc policy whereby it responds to government demands on a case-by-case basis is insufficient. Facebook should establish clear policies to guide its actions as it responds both to the demands of governments and the needs of users. And it should make them public so that the outside world can evaluate its actions according to Facebook’s own standards.
- Facebook’s privacy policies have come under fire for lack of transparency.
Access to some of Facebook’s privacy settings, however, remains needlessly difficult and opting out of some policies can require users to take multiple steps.
- The Global Network Initiative provides assurance that companies are taking steps to address these challenges.The Global Network Initiative (GNI) is a multi-stakeholder organization that protects online freedom and privacy in the face of government pressure on companies. Company members of GNI incorporate its guidelines into their policies and practices and undergo independent assessments of their efforts. In addition, GNI members work collaboratively to identify and address emerging threats stemming from government practices and policies that might limit or degrade online services.
Human Rights First hopes that Facebook will use its time as an observer of the GNI to prepare to become a full member and adopt the corresponding obligations including implementing GNI principles and committing to accountability. This would address ongoing concerns about Facebook’s commitment to online privacy and free expression.