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Corporations Agree to Standards for Internet Freedom

The Global Network Initiative has been launched. The Initiative is a code of conduct for corporations on privacy and free speech created by a coalition of human rights, media development and research organizations, and Internet and communications companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft. Its goal: to ensure that ICT companies acknowledge their “responsibility to respect and protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users.”

The Initiative was launched as a response to corporate participation in online censorship, especially in China. It took more than two years to craft, and much of that time was spent articulating a set of principles and devising mechanisms to encourage compliance acceptable both to human rights groups and to businesses.

Rebecca MacKinnon, one of Global Voices’ founders, participated in the working group, and writes in RConversation:

A few people have called me asking “does this thing have any teeth” or “is this thing more than just a figleaf for companies to get congress off their backs?

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.

Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy and Technology, one of the initiative’s conveners, writes on her blog PolicyBeta:

Not merely aspirational, the Initiative requires concrete commitments from participating companies to engage in a high level of corporate due diligence and risk management with respect to the demands they receive from government, and greater user transparency about the impact of those demands on freedom of expression and privacy, in all markets where they operate. Company fulfillment of these commitments will be evaluated through an independent and credible process for accountability.

The Chinese/English anti-censorship blog, GFW Blog provides a succinct summary, a list of quotes and from participants, and their contact information.

Not every organization involved ultimately signed on to the principles. Amnesty International and Reporters sans frontieres both stepped away from the process. RSF believes that the Initiative is a “step in the right direction” but lacks enforcement capacity, and lists their main concerns here. Amnesty UK's Internet repression page doesn't discuss their position, but it does have a video of Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman explaining online censorship.

Fundamentally, it seems that some organizations feel they can be better advocates if they don’t have to compromise on principles, while others believe that engagement and the creation of a process for dialogue leading to incremental change is more important.

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