The Global Network Initiative Balances Freedoms and Business Needs

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-10-29 Print this article Print

Internet businesses need to be on the side of users and their rights, but you can't expect them to walk away from countries that don't respect those rights.

Internet users have enough trouble with criminals attacking them and governments seemingly doing nothing to stop it. The last thing they need is for governments to be attacking them as well, but it happens a lot.

There's no shortage of do-gooders struggling to protect the people's rights on the Internet. The latest entry may be different: The Global Network Initiative is a group of companies that have agreed to a code of conduct for protecting their users' rights. The participants include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and a collection of others-mostly academics and human rights NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).

The NGOs overlap some with the do-gooders I mentioned, but it's the inclusion of Google, Microsoft and Yahoo that makes this interesting. What are they actually committing to? Is this just PR for them or are they really going to make tough decisions about doing business in repressive countries not based solely on maximizing profit?

The principles of the GNI declare that "Information and Communications Technology companies have the responsibility to respect and protect the freedom of expression and privacy rights of their users." To facilitate this respect and protection, they have established guidelines and a governance structure to measure compliance. To protect freedom of expression we get these statements:

Participating companies will respect and protect the freedom of expression of their users by seeking to avoid or minimize the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression, including restrictions on the information available to users and the opportunities for users to create and communicate ideas and information, regardless of frontiers or media of communication.
Participating companies will respect and protect the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression, remove content or otherwise limit access to information and ideas in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.
This is typical of the rules in the sense that it commits the company to be on the side of the users and their rights when confronted with government demands to impinge on those rights. The documents don't demand that companies engage in civil disobedience by refusing government orders, for instance, to identify users who might have thought they were operating anonymously.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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