The troubled history of the Global Network Initiative

by on March 30, 2011 · 7 comments

I’ve posted a long article on this morning on the Global Network Initiative. A non-profit group aimed at improving human rights though the agency of information technology companies, GNI has never really gotten off the ground.

Since its formal launch in 2008, following two years of negotiations among tech companies, human rights groups and academics, not a single company has agreed to join beyond the original members–Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

This despite considerable pressure from supporters of GNI, including Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Human Rights.  Indeed, in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere and the seminal role played by social media and other IT, a full-court press has been launched against Facebook and Twitter in particular for failing to sign up.

The tone of the criticism hardly seems designed to encourage new members to join.  (In The Huffington Post, Amy Lee asks simply, “Why won’t Twitter and Facebook sign on for free speech on the Internet?”)

Why indeed.

The article reviews the troubled history of GNI and its complex, incomplete, and worrisome organizational structure, which gives considerable power to NGOs to shape the policies and practices of participating companies.  (That features is especially worrisome, as many of the NGOs are traditional human rights organizations with little or no experience dealing with IT.)

Participating companies, among other commitments, must submit to bi-annual “assessments” of their compliance with GNI principles, conducted by assessors certified by GNI’s board.

Details aside, there is a more fundamental question worth asking here.  Why are technology companies being asked to influence (one might say interfere with) public policy and local laws of other countries?   GNI requires not only that participants resist efforts by repressive governments to censor content or to force disclosure of private information of their citizens, but also that they actively lobby these governments, to “engage government officials to promote the rule of law and the reform of laws, policies and practices that infringe on freedom of expression and privacy.”

Freedom of expression and privacy are worthwhile goals, but isn’t it the job of a country’s own citizens to petition their governments for change?  And if those citizens are suppressed, isn’t it the job of the global community, operating through political and trade organizations such as the U.N. and the WTO, to lobby for change?  Why is foreign policy being outsourced to Facebook and Twitter?

Perhaps it’s because national governments won’t do it.  But the demur by tech companies to take on the job is hardly a reason for Sen. Durbin to criticize and threaten them.  If he’s looking for someone to blame for the poor human rights record of some governments, perhaps he should look a little closer to home.

  • Rick

    Seriously, Larry, just how much of a tool are you really? You’re as much a mouthpiece for Facebook as what’s-her-name from the NYT was for the Bush Administration in the run up to the Iraq war.

    The mere fact that these other corporations would have the convinction of their beliefs to the extent that they would agree to be audited by human rights groups is nothing short of courageous, not some “policy poison pill” to keep others out of their exclusive club.

    You’ve been sold a bag of goods by the industry’s most arrogant company, Facebook, and you can’t even see it..

  • Larry

    Ah, if only I was a mouthpiece for all the (competing/hostile) companies I’ve been accused of being a mouthpiece for–let’s see–Google, Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, eBay, now Facebook–I wouldn’t have to work.

    The audits (which have never happened in four years) are actually a feature of GNI I don’t find troubling. But of course you didn’t bother to actually read the article.

  • Catherine Ann Fitzpatrick

    I’ve had a similar concern and critique of GNI but I put it in these terms: why are NGOs, whether knowledgeable or not (and there’s a mix of them) able to circumvent the public, Congress, and the courts and impose public policy about the Internet on companies? Congress should be making law, not NGOs. And freedom of expression should not be trumping freedom of association — it never has in Supreme Court rulings on this subject. I’m all for NGOs influencing policy, but I’m not for a few dozen of them overriding not only people with different views than their “progressive” agenda suggests but the millions of customers of the social media companies — and that’s exactly what’s happening.

    Let’s take just one policy avidly promoted by Jillian York of the Harvard Berkman Center and one staffer of CPJ and a few others in the group, who have put Sen. Durbin’s office up to making this a public campaign: anonymous accounts on Facebook. The pitch goes like this: all these revolutionaries in the Middle East and China have pseudonyms, they need to be able to get around FB policy that requires authentic identities, they are unfairly banned. .

    Naturally the objection is that if you allow anonymity, you will remove one of the features of Facebook highly valued not only within the confines of FB pages themselves and friendship circles, but outside of the FB realm where FB is used to log on to make comments on various website forums and news sites. And that is obviously identity and accountability. But the Berkman Center insists on this boon — and then regardless of whether most customers wouldn’t appreciate it, and don’t want FB to turn into Youtube or Yahoo with its nasty and unaccountable comments, the policy is pushed through via GNI — and FB is hammered and browbeaten to join GNI and adopt this policy. Fortunately, it’s saying no. But for how long, under concerted pressure from its peers? When confronted with the problem of general anonymity, those proposing the anonymous accounts conceive of an “activists’s account” — but that would be unacceptable elitism and would allow more discretionary power for FB than it already has, which is too much, and too uneven. Confronted with the obvious unfairness of having discretionary “activists’ accounts,” York then says she’s for having people like Michael Anti, the Chinese dissident banned from FB for using a pseudonym, being able to appeal, and then be reinstated. But that’s merely a special elitist account in another form. Who gets to decide who is deserving and who isn’t?

    Instead of having customers and people who pay for the platform, whether by investment or by ad-clicking, at whatever level, or by serving as ap engineers, GNI would have a handful of NGos and companies decide things. That’s wrong.

    When you look at the actual policy positions GNI has taken, they’ve been meager and lame indeed — none of this robust help to struggling cyber dissidents that was originally promised — no statements for Chinese or Belarusian and Azeri bloggers. Instead, we find the odd statement supporting the Google “upload freely and file takedowns later so we can sell ads” agenda, like a protest against the Italian judge’s decision calling for the takedown of the youtube where a disabled boy was bullied and mocked — in the name of the greater glories of free speech. There’s a misconception that Google’s Youtube must function like some sort of common-law system with separation of powers and a judiciary working by precedent (too bad it doesn’t), and that each decision will “put a chill over speech” and even the most offensive content has to be allowed to stay in the name of free speech for all, as if every day, there are a million Skokies.

    Except it doesn’t work that way. It’s ok if private companies exercise their freedom of association and rule to remove pages that incite violent intifada, or hatred of Jews, or hatred of gays, or bullying of disabled kids. That’s fine. If somehow the backdrop of these decisions were to spilll over to being unable to disagree with Obama or Palin in a video clip, then those cases can each be fought individually by those affected — and there’s no evidence there will be cases like this. There’s a lot of confusion in people’s minds in these cases about what is the proper agent of censorship — it’s a state actor, not a non-state actor.

    In my view, GNI should cease and desist from making policy for the Internet. No one needs a central committee of a few elite NGOs with agendas and a few companies trying to feign concern about human rights to make policy for us all. The companies should make their own policies under U.S. law. They can provide as much or as little of the First Amendment as they think is good for their businesses — and it’s good if there is a free market in a range of such levels.

    GNI might usefully retool itself into an annual conference like TED or SWSX or State of Play where there are lots of workshops and speakers on these issue so that it promotes debate and research and policy by others, rather than arrogating to itself that role.

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