The Global Network Initiative Balances Freedoms and Business Needs

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-10-29

The Global Network Initiative Balances Freedoms and Business Needs

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.

Compromise by Necessity


You can argue with such a compromise, and there are some NGOs that refused to sign on for this or other reasons, but there was no way you would get any industry participants to cooperate with such an effort without such an approach. Telling them they must not comply with local laws is telling them they can't do business in countries with governments that don't respect human rights. There are few if any governments in the world that don't violate their citizens' rights at times.

Authoritarian states are more interested in controlling information than they are in having the best information services available to their citizens. If efforts like the GNI really spread and the companies signed up really stick to the letter and spirit of it, then we might find one way to gauge who's more authoritarian than whom.

I have to say I'm impressed with both the companies and the human rights groups involved here. They all recognized that no progress can come from being dogmatic. The important thing is to make sure that important companies don't become part of the state censorship and repression machine. In the long term, as the principles put it, information and communications technology companies and the products and services they provide will help to spread ideas of freedom as they help people to communicate more. In the long term, I don't think the machine can compete.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

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