Global initiative promises to harmonize ICT and human rights

But how much leverage will the GNI actually have?

By Cyrus Farivar
Published October 29, 2008 5:30PM (EDT)

Wednesday marks the official beginning of a new organization designed to infuse human rights and freedom of expression into the practices of Internet and tech companies working in places where such rights are dubious at best -- namely, China. The Global Network Initiative, as it's known, has the lofty-sounding slogan: "Protecting and Advancing Freedom of Expression and Privacy in Information and Communications Technologies."

Its backers are a substantial group of academics (Harvard, Berkeley, USC), other nongovernmental organizations (Committee to Protect Journalists, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch), only three tech companies (Yahoo, Google, Microsoft), a couple of financial companies (Calvert Group, Trillium Asset Management) and a few wild cards like Rebecca MacKinnon (a longtime China Internet watcher) and the U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Business and Human Rights, who only has observer status.

According to its Web site, this "multi-stakeholder group" spent two years coming up with a "collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector." Now, I don't mean to piss on anyone's parade, but I've spent the better part of an hour going through the organization's documents, and I still don't get how exactly this organization is supposed to help anyone in countries where these kinds of things matter -- namely, China.

I mean, OK, it's good to start somewhere and try to make something like this work, but this entire approach strikes me as a bit naive and ultimately, unattainable.

OK, first things first. There's way to many uses of the word "should" in the list of principles.

Example: "The right to freedom of expression should not be restricted by governments, except in narrowly defined circumstances based on internationally recognized laws or standards."

Or: "The right to privacy should not be restricted by governments, except in narrowly defined circumstances based on internationally recognized laws and standards. These restrictions should be consistent with international human rights laws and standards, the rule of law and be necessary and proportionate for the relevant purpose."

I'm sure all these dudes don't need me to tell them that in the countries that we're talking about (China, we're looking at you), the right to privacy and freedom of expression is restricted. Frequently. It doesn't matter whether it ought to be or not, the fact of the matter is that, well, it is.

We've seen time after time that companies are willing (reluctantly or not) to bend to the demands of Chinese authorities. In 2004, a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, was imprisoned because Yahoo decided to turn over details about his online activity on Yahoo Mail. In 2005, Microsoft built in censorship of certain words and phrases into its Chinese version of MSN Spaces, a blogging service. Google created a censored version of its localized search engine, in 2006. More recently we've seen other companies (Skype, for instance) release censored versions of their products, only to find that it got a bit out of hand.

So why should we believe that these companies won't continue their practices to best serve their corporate interests ahead of human rights and privacy interests now when they wouldn't do it before? It's pretty clear that these companies believe -- either for human rights reasons or for business reasons (or both) -- that being in China with restricted access is better than nothing, and if they have to invade people's privacy or prevent them from doing certain things online, so be it.

Second, again, while this initiative is certainly well meaning, it seems like it's far easier for these companies to pay lip service to promoting human rights than actually doing something. After all, the Web site itself states that each of the three participating companies has to contribute only $100,000 per year for the first two years to fund the initial work of this organization. That's chump change. If this organization actually meant something, certainly they could commit a bit more than that, no?

Finally, there appears to be no penalty or enforcement mechanism to punish companies like Yahoo, Microsoft and Google if they violate these principles, once the lengthy investigation and evaluation process concludes.

As the site states:

After evaluating a summary of the independent assessors' reports and the companies' responses, the Board of the Organization will again publish its annual report assessing each participating company's compliance with the Principles, describing its findings, matters learned, compliance challenges, impact on freedom of expression and privacy, and its path forward.

Pretty much all of these reports will likely read something like the Google defense: "Company X is committed to protecting the rights of its users, and while Country Y may be engaging in this oppressive practice, we believe that we are doing what we can to support human rights in that country by delivering our services."

I'd gladly bet that we're never going to see any of these companies stand up to China, face restricted market access or threaten to pull up its stakes entirely -- largely because they have no leverage over China, even collectively. Which of these companies is actually going to boycott China? None of them. Google is already way behind Baidu in China. Microsoft's products are freely pirated, despite its latest antipiracy efforts, which China isn't happy about. And Yahoo -- does it even matter anymore?

Cyrus Farivar

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