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The Global Network Initiative

After more than two years of work behind closed doors, the Global Network Initiative is launching this week. That’s the corporate code of conduct on free speech and privacy I’ve been talking about in generalities for quite some time. By midnight Tuesday U.S. East Coast time, the full set of documents and list of initial signatories will be made publicly available at globalnetworkinitiative.org.

On that website you’ll be able to read the full text of the Principles on free expression and privacy. A group of companies including Yahoo!, Google, and Microsoft, human rights organizations, socially responsible investment funds, academics, and free speech groups spent the last two-plus years reaching agreement on what should go into that document. There will also be a Governance Charter and a set of Implementation Guidelines giving more detail on how companies should adhere to the core principles. There will be an FAQ, list of participants, and contact people for the organizations that have joined the Global Network Initiative so far. The hope is that many more companies, NGOs, investment funds, and academic institutions around the world will join in the coming months.

The initial plan was to release the news so that the first news reports about the initiative would come out closer to the website’s unveiling at 12:01am Wednesday EDT or 12:01pm HKT. But the story leaked early and the San Francisco Chronicle reported it on Monday without any comment from the participants who had all agreed not to talk until the official launch. Since then, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, WSJ China Blog, the AP, AFP and others have reported the story with remarks from some of the participants. We can expect more coverage in the next 24 hours.

A few people have called me asking “does this thing have any teeth” or “is this thing more than just a figleaf for companies to get congress off their backs?”

Organizations like Human Rights Watch, Human Rights in China, Human Rights First, and the Committee to Protect Journalists would not be putting their reputations behind this thing if they didn’t think it was meaningful.

That said, the initiative must prove its value in the next couple of years by implementing a meaningful and sufficiently tough process by which companies’ adherence to the principles will be evaluated and benchmarked. If there is a rigorous process that rates the companies’ behavior, then investors who care about social responsibility, and users who want to know how trustworthy a given company is compared to others, can make more informed choices.

The initiative is based on the reality that there is pretty much no country on earth—including the United States—where governments aren’t pressuring telecoms and Internet companies to do things that potentially violate users’ rights to privacy and free expression. Companies must consider the right to free expression and privacy of users in all markets to be part and parcel of what it means to be socially responsible. Part of the problem is that many telecoms and Internet companies just have not been thinking through these issues as they roll out products and services around the globe, resulting in all kinds of unintended consequences—the TOM-Skype fiasco in which Skype’s Chinese business partner was found to have allowed a huge security breach being the latest example. The Initiative is about getting companies to think ahead and incorporate human rights assessments into new product plans or plans to enter new markets. It’s also about being more transparent and honest with your users about what’s being censored, why and how, and informing them about how and with whom their personal data is being stored and shared. That way, users can make informed choices about how and when it is safe or reliable to use these services—or not.

As critics point out, the initiative stops short at making companies pledge to commit civil disobedience, break local laws, or to pull out of markets at a certain prescribed point. Depending on where you stand, you might consider this a strength or a weakness. The initiative is focused specifically on how to engage in markets around the world while doing everything you can to avoid causing harm to users and customers. It won’t on its own stop governments (of any given ideology or political system) from doing bad things to their own citizens. If it’s successful, however, it will help companies who truly care about their users to think ahead about how they can avoid acting as an un-transparent and un-accountable extensions of government abuse. Whether even such a modest success can be achieved will require a lot of work from all the organizations who have already signed on and who may sign on in the future. NGO’s, investors, human rights organizations, user groups, and academics need to make sure that the companies’ performance on matters related to free speech and privacy is evaluated in a rigorous and meaningful way. I hope that groups around the world will not only insist but help to make sure that this initiative will be much more than a fig leaf.

By Rebecca MacKinnon, Journalist and activist; Co-founder, Global Voices Online

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