Promoting human rights online using a multi-stakeholder approach

Over the course of the last 9 months the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights has co-chaired the Privacy and Transparency Working Group -- a multi-stakeholder group of experts looking at how to protect human rights at the intersection between governments and information & communications technology (ICT) companies. The group was established under the auspices of the Freedom Online Coalition, a partnership of 26 governments working to advance internet freedom. The working group aims to provide operational guidance on how to protect free expression and privacy in government-company relationships, building on principles the FOC has outlined.

The group has been focused on how to increase transparency in an important part of this relationship: government requests to companies for user information or content restriction. We've looked specifically at law enforcement and intelligence situations, where the stakes for effective government operations on one hand, and for protecting human rights on the other, are particularly high.

Transparency in this context has been a big topic of conversation over last few years. Much of the focus has been on company transparency reports, through which companies regularly report the volume of requests they receive from governments. Taking a broader lens, the group looked at company and government practices, and analyzed the internal and external considerations that both parties take into account when determining what information they make public. We held informal consultations with governments and companies to discuss the current state of affairs, challenges to transparency (including legitimate law enforcement and intelligence needs), and opportunities for improvement. 

Without understanding the components of internal decision making, it’s hard to have an informed conversation about what best practices in transparency about government requests can and should look like. We hope that our research provides useful qualitative insights in this regard. We published an executive summary of our research here. Stay tuned for the full report this summer.

Katharine Kendrick is a Policy Associate. She focuses on tech issues.