This week, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) announced that seven telecom companies have joined its ranks as observers according to terms approved at GNI’s December board meeting. Since 2013, our Center has been a member of GNI, which is a multi-stakeholder initiative that includes major tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn, as well as academics, civil society organizations, and social investors. We believe deeply in GNI’s potential and mission. Over the last year, we have made significant efforts to encourage GNI to take steps toward greater viability and strength so that it has the capacity to effectively advance human rights in the tech industry. But given our serious concerns about the terms of the agreement to admit the telecom companies, as well as GNI’s overall direction at this time, we are regretfully withdrawing our participation in the initiative.
Our involvement in GNI began well before the Center was launched. Both of us participated in the initial negotiations about the formation of GNI from 2007 to 2009. In the context of growing global concern about online censorship and surveillance, we saw great potential in GNI’s multi-stakeholder model to develop and implement industry-wide standards on free expression and privacy in the tech sector. We were proud to be at the table with Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo, who were then and continue to be industry leaders in addressing the challenges of censorship and surveillance. We worked with these companies and other stakeholders to develop GNI’s charter, which recognizes that “privacy is a human right and guarantor of human dignity. Privacy is important to maintaining personal security, protecting identity and promoting freedom of expression in the digital age.”
As GNI approaches its tenth anniversary, the imperative of upholding this standard has never been greater. With advances in data collection over the last decade, many different kinds of companies have developed the capacity to collect increasingly sophisticated personal information about each of us. Governments around the world are attuned to these developments and have only increased their demands on tech companies to disclose the personal information they collect. Today, the landscape for free expression and privacy is complicated by the Snowden revelations about government surveillance in the United States, ISIS’s pernicious abuse of technology as a recruiting tool, as well as longstanding efforts by the Chinese, Iranian, Russian and other authoritarian governments to manage information to quell dissent and persecute their critics.
In this highly charged global environment, leading tech companies face mounting pressures to prove to their users that they can be trusted with personal and sensitive data. This was the challenge GNI was established to address. Over the last year, it has become clear to us that GNI as currently structured is not prepared to take on today’s daunting human rights challenges in the tech industry. We pushed GNI’s board and membership to address fundamental gaps in its current structure in advance of reaching agreement on terms to admit the telecom companies. In our view, the agreement that was finalized this week was premature and significantly reduces the possibility that GNI will be able to implement the strategic reforms that are necessary to enable it to rise to today’s pressing free expression and privacy challenges.
We see three essential strategic challenges that GNI must address and that remain unresolved:
1. Shared vision: Based on our extensive consultations over the last year, we do not believe that those most active in GNI, including the telecom companies now participating as observers, have a shared vision for the organization’s core mission and future agenda. There are a range of views across the membership on a variety of substantive and organizational issues, including the most essential questions of what is reasonable to expect of companies in the face of increasing demands for personal information and censorship from governments.
2. Transparency and company accountability: A fundamental premise of GNI at its inception was that it would set and enforce common industry standards for company performance relating to free expression and privacy. By monitoring companies’ compliance with the standard, our shared vision was that GNI would help build public trust in information and communication technology companies. Over the last year, the board has retreated from this fundamental commitment to examine whether companies are in compliance with GNI’s standards. There is an urgent need to reexamine the assurance process to make it more efficient, effective, transparent, and credible.
3. Organizational capacity: If GNI is to become an effective advocacy and accountability organization on a global scale, it will require far greater staff capacity and operating funds than its current annual budget of well under USD$1 million. As it stands, GNI struggles to fulfill its most basic functions and has not been successful in making the case for significant, ongoing support from philanthropic foundations or others. Building an organization that is financially viable with sufficient capacity to shape policy debates, assess company compliance with a human rights standard, and help build member companies’ capacity on human rights should be a key priority for the board.
Until this week’s announcement, we saw an alternative way forward to admit the telecom companies as observers for 2016 without locking in the terms of their admission in 2017. During the coming year, GNI could – together with the telecom companies – reflect on the fundamental questions related to its mission, capacity, and structure. With greater clarity about its forward-looking vision, GNI would have been on stronger footing to recruit the additional members and resources it needs to grow and thrive.
Reaching agreement on the fundamental, as-yet-unresolved issues will require flexibility from all parties. In our view, locking in the terms of the telecoms’ eventual admission reduces much-needed flexibility and therefore the possibility for developing a shared, ambitious vision of what GNI is and can do to enhance respect for the rights of billions of Internet and mobile customers. Our Center remains ready and willing to re-engage at some future point if and when GNI is prepared to tackle the fundamental questions that are essential to making it a leading global organization on free expression and privacy in the tech sector.
Read the Center’s letter informing GNI leadership of its withdrawal.