RDR @ the Internet Governance Forum

RDR had an active presence at this year’s Internet Governance Forum, an annual multi-stakeholder meeting organized by the United Nations which brings together representatives from governments, companies, civil society, and the technical community to discuss key issues of common concern related to the internet’s future. This year’s ninth annual forum was held in Istanbul and attended by over 3,000 people from around the world, with one of the sub-themes being ‘the Internet and human rights’. Our team presented Ranking Digital Rights during several gatherings and received positive responses.

RDR public workshop and stakeholder meeting

The IGF offered various sessions on privacy impacts in the post-Snowden era, and brought significant attention to human rights-related issues. We organized a workshop with the Rio Institute for Technology and Society (ITS) on how companies can be encouraged to respect the human rights of their users. The workshop featured representatives from civil society (Human Rights Watch, ITS, and Allon Bar on behalf of Ranking Digital Rights), private sector (Facebook, Tunisian Internet Agency, Blunai), government (UK) and multi-stakeholder groups (Global Network Initiative). Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator who has pushed for transparency on government requests for user data, moderated the panel. Click here to read a summary of the session, or you can watch it on YouTube here:

During the session, several panelists (other than ourselves!) highlighted the potential Ranking Digital Rights has as a way to improve companies’ respect for human rights. Human Rights Watch’s Cynthia Wong explained how standard setting and measurement are important approaches to improve corporate behavior. Ihab Osman of Blunai also mentioned RDR as a way to influence companies’ policies while further focusing on the importance of stimulating good behavior on the part of individual business leaders. Other workshop participants focused on the critical role governments play in how companies handle human rights.

We also organized a meeting with half a dozen companies as well as with project researchers and advisors present at the IGF. We discussed the status of the project, our plans for the ranking pilot later this year, and the full ranking taking place in 2015. It was a useful way to get feedback, for example, about how to assess companies operating in multiple countries and also to answer questions about how we plan to approach the ranking.

UNESCO report on Internet intermediaries and freedom of expression

Another key gathering for us at the IGF was UNESCO’s workshop on “Intermediaries’ role and good practice in protecting freedom of expression”. Rebecca MacKinnon, one of the lead authors of a forthcoming report on the topic presented the research results. The report will be published later in the Fall and explores how different intermediary types (Internet service providers, search engines, and social networks) can adopt policies and practices to protect their users’ right to freedom of expression. Ranking Digital Rights staff and research partners were heavily involved in drafting the report. You can watch the video of the entire session here:

Dynamic Coalition on “Platform Responsibility”

New to the scene at the IGF was the Dynamic Coalition on Platform Responsibility, which held its formational meeting in Istanbul. This new coalition aims to promote initiatives that focus on companies’ responsibility to promote human rights. Rebecca MacKinnon offered the opening address to its inaugural gathering, posing the question how companies can be encouraged to minimize human rights harms, while maximizing privacy and freedom of expression. Follow up plans include a project to draft concrete recommendations for what companies’ policies should look like.

Freedom Online Coalition Working Group on Privacy and Transparency

RDR’s Rebecca MacKinnon is a member of a new multi-stakeholder working group on privacy and transparency created by the Freedom Online Coalition which describes itself as a “partnership of 23 governments working to advance Internet freedom”. The working group’s inaugural meeting was held at the IGF. Through this working group as well as through active involvement with other organizations and activities, RDR intends to be part of an effort to develop and advance transparency and accountability by governments as well as companies when it comes to policies and practices that affect Internet users’ fundamental freedoms.

Other initiatives

The IGF also proved a great venue to learn more about other region or issue-specific efforts to rank technology companies. These include the Thai Netizen Network’s effort [in Thai] to assess security practices of Internet companies operating in Thailand, and a scoring by the Association of Progressive Communications of APC’s scoring of efforts by social media companies to prevent violence against women.

In all, it was a busy and productive week for us at RDR. It highlighted our work to a wider audience and further galvanized us on this mission.

New Partnership with Sustainalytics and Other Good News

Thanks to everybody who provided feedback on Version 2 of our Phase 1 methodology. After further revision we will conduct a pilot study this Fall, testing the methodology on up to 10 companies. In accordance with our work plan and timeline, we will then make final adjustments to the methodology and carry out a final round of stakeholder consultation before launching the full Phase 1 ranking of  internet and telecommunications companies in 2015.

Given the importance of rigor and quality control in comparative company research, in July 2014 we launched a partnership with Sustainalytics, a leading independent research firm with extensive experience assessing the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance of global companies. As the research partner of Ranking Digital Rights, Sustainalytics will be involved in the design and research for the 2014 pilot study, contributing its significant expertise in the ICT sector, human rights issues, research methodology and rankings design.With experienced staff around the world  and over 20 years of experience, Sustainalytics is a research provider and consultant to some of the largest global investors and financial institutions.  Sustainalytics is also the primary research partner  for the 2014 Access to Medicines Index.

Update (Aug 15): We are also thrilled to announce that we will be partnering with Indaba, developed by Global Integrity, to build the back-end research management system for our Phase 1 pilot this Fall.

Concurrently, with the help of University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication doctoral student Tim Libert, this summer we kicked off initial research on Phase 2 of the methodology (focusing on devices, networking equipment, and software). After further research and consultation over the next year the Phase 2 methodology will be incorporated into the ranking starting in 2016.

We are also preparing a white paper summarizing the results of our case study research, conducted with our research partners in the second half of 2013 and early 2014, which informed the development of our Phase 1 methodology. Nathalie Marechal, doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, led the drafting of that white paper which will be published later this year. Marechal also represented RDR at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab Summer Institute. We are thankful to the Annenberg COMPASS program for supporting her summer fellowship with RDR.

In addition to the Knight News Challenge grant received in June, RDR’s work receintly received a further vote of confidence from the Ford Foundation with a substantial two-year grant. These foundations join our other funders to propel the project forward through 2015 and beyond.

Finally, we are pleased to announce the addition of a new full-time staff member, Priya Kumar, now in her third week of work as a Program Associate based at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.  She joins Europe-based research coordinator and human rights specialist, Allon Bar, on what is now a three-person full-time team. At the same time we are sad to say goodbye to Hae-in Lim, our hard-working research assistant for the past year, who is returning to full-time graduate studies this month. Her inputs have been invaluable to the project’s progress thus far.

RDR wins the Knight News Challenge!!!

Ranking Digital Rights is honored to announce that we are one of nine winners of the 2014 John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge. This year’s challenge focuses on breakthrough ideas that strengthen the Internet for freedom of expression and innovation.

One of our sister projects at New America’s Open Technology Institute, Measurement Lab (M-Lab), is also a Knight News Challenge winner. We look forward to collaborating with them and the other impressive projects run by brilliant people committed to keeping the Internet open and free.

The News Challenge award supports significant elements of RDR’s work through the end of 2015. Specifically, in the second half of 2014 it will support a pilot study in which we will test out our Phase 1 methodology on ten or so Internet and telecom companies around the world. In 2015, it will support implementation of the full public ranking of up to 50 companies.

It goes without saying that this award would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of RDR’s institutional partners and researchers. Nor would it have been possible without the generosity of our existing funders who made that work possible.

We sincerely thank the Knight Foundation which supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. Ranking Digital Rights contributes to that mission by engaging and informing the public on what ICT sector companies are (or aren’t) doing to respect users’ rights, generating data that that the consumers, the media, investors, and policymakers can use to hold the world’s most powerful companies accountable to international human rights standards.

RDR featured on London School of Economics “Measuring Business and Human Rights” blog

The following post is featured on the London School of Economics “Measuring Business and Human Rights” blog:

Ranking Digital Rights: How can and should ICT sector companies respect Internet users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy?

Vodafone’s blockbuster Law Enforcement Disclosure report, published last week, reveals greater detail than any telecommunications company has previously shared about the extent and nature of government surveillance demands all over the world.

Vodafone is certainly not alone: the problem is rampant across the entire sector. Norway’s Telenor isunder pressure from Thailand’s new military leaders who just seized power in a coup to help monitor and censor any content that might “lead to unrest.” Human Rights Watch recently questioned the French company, Orange, about its operations in Ethiopia whose government jails bloggers for political critiques.

Censorship is also a serious and growing problem for the ICT sector. On the 25th anniversary of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, LinkedIn blocked mentions of the tragedy for its users in China. Last month, Twitter came under fire from free speech activists for agreeing to censor several tweets in Pakistan at the government’s request. Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported that “the Syrian opposition is disappearing from Facebook” – and not by choice.

Clearly, the policies and practices of Internet and telecommunications companies have real impact for the free expression and privacy of people around the world. Are they living up to their responsibilities? Are they doing everything they can to respect the rights of their users?

Some companies are trying – to varying degrees, publishing “transparency reports,” signing up for assessment processes through membership the Global Network Initiative, and making joint commitments as part of the Telecom Industry Dialogue. Others are doing little more than public relations window-dressing, while yet others are making little or no discernible effort to respect their users’ digital rights.

Meanwhile, investors have begun to ask questions about the materiality of companies’ policies and practices related to freedom of expression and privacy. One concrete example is the addition of freedom of expression and privacy criteria to recommended SEC reporting standards by the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

As Internet users, or as investors who care about social value as well as financial returns, what should we be asking of these companies? How do we benchmark and compare companies’ policies and practices affecting free expression and privacy? What should be considered “best practice” in a world where governments are making unreasonable demands of companies, whose staff risk jail or worse in many cases for non-compliance?

The Ranking Digital Rights project is working on answers to those questions, developing a system rank the world’s most powerful ICT sector companies on free expression and privacy criteria. We have just released a draft methodology on which we are now inviting public comment until July 7th. After further revision followed by a pilot study, we aim to start ranking up to 50 Internet and telecommunications companies in 2015. (We will add up to 50 more device, software, and equipment companies in 2016.)

The project is modeled after other efforts by investors, universities, NGOs and international organizations that measure companies on other human rights, social responsibility and sustainability criteria – from conflict minerals to labor practices to carbon disclosure. Many rankings efforts such as the Access to Medicines Index and the Corporate Equality Index have had real impact on corporate practices.

Thus we believe that if the methodology is well constructed, a ranking focused on the policies and practices of ICT sector companies affecting free expression and privacy can have a substantial, measurable impact on the extent to which companies respect and protect Internet users’ rights.

The current draft methodology is the product of more than a year’s worth of research and stakeholder consultation. The first step came with a stakeholder consultation in the Fall of 2012 to ascertain whether there was sufficient interest among investors, advocates, and technologists to proceed with the project. After some initial funds had been secured and partnerships forged, an April 2013 workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brought together a group of researchers from around the world, technologists, experts in business and human rights, and experts on rankings. Out of that meeting came a set of draft criteria in the summer of 2013: an initial list of questions that stakeholders believe are relevant to understanding how and whether Internet and telecommunications companies are making genuine efforts to respect Internet users’ freedom of expression and privacy. We then used the draft criteria as the basis for a set of case studies examining companies in the United States, Europe, Brazil, India, China, and Russia. The results of the case study in turn enabled us to make key decisions about the methodology’s scope and focus, and to publish a first draft in February. We then carried out another round of consultations with companies, investors, technologists, experts on business and human rights, and experts on rankings. After absorbing their feedback and carrying out further research, we were able to publish Version 2 of the draft methodology late last month.

Public consultation on the current draft runs through July 7th, after which we will make another round of revisions and produce Version 3. That version will be used as a basis for a pilot study focusing on up to 10 of 50 companies we are likely to rank in 2015. This pilot study will enable us to improve the methodology and make final decisions about scoring and weighting for the full ranking to be implemented in 2015. It will also enable us to identify adoption and advocacy strategies for investors and civil society, so that we can ensure that the ranking is produced in a manner that is as useful to these stakeholder groups as possible.

But first, in order to make sure that our methodology is as solid and credible as possible, it is important that we get feedback on our latest draft from experts on digital privacy and freedom of expression, anybody who might want to use our data when it comes out, as well as companies who may be candidates for ranking.

If you think you might be one of those people – or if you just care about these issues and want to weigh in – please click here, read the methodology, and help us improve it.

Version 2, Phase 1 Draft Methodology: Ready for your feedback

Version 2 of the Phase 1 Methodology needs your feedback!

After releasing a first draft in February, we sought feedback from companies, human rights advocates, technologists, investors, and other specialists. After analyzing all of the feedback received and conducting further research, we have now released Version 2 for public comment.

This public comment period will last until July 7th, after which we will produce Version 3 for use in a pilot study. The pilot study will enable us to refine the methodology before implementing a full ranking system in 2015. Please click here to review Version 2 of the Phase 1 Methodology. There are options to submit comments either publicly or privately – or both – as you prefer.

Support RDR in the Knight News Challenge!!

Knight News Challenge

Knight News Challenge screenshot from March 18, 2014

The theme of this year’s Knight foundation News Challenge is: “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?”

We believe that ranking ICT companies on freedom of expression and privacy criteria will help to do just that.

Please support our proposal! Check out our entry, then clicking on the pink “applaud” button. If you have time, please post a comment and let us know what you think – or feel free to ask questions.

RDR @ RightsCon

By Research Coordinator Allon Bar and Research Intern Hae-in Lim

Members of the RDR team debuted our preliminary “methodology elements” at RightsCon, a conference hosted by Access on human rights in the tech sector from March 3 to 5 in San Francisco. RightsCon proved to be the ideal place to strengthen our engagement with advocates, companies, policy makers, and investors—all of whom we envision as future users of the ranking.

A decidedly global affair with attendees hailing from more than 65 countries, RightsCon featured a diverse range of workshops and panels on topics from digital security and activism to corporate accountability mechanisms, transparency reporting and terms of service, The gathering served as an important reminder that numerous non-western companies serve countries with large and growing digital populations, underscoring why it is important for Ranking Digital Rights to take into account the concerns and perspectives of advocacy groups from all around the world.

Ranking Digital Rights hosted three sessions at RightsCon: the first in-person meeting of RDR researchers from around the world, a closed-door meeting with company representatives, and a public workshop open to all conference attendees that was attended primarily by activists. At the public workshop we presented the first discussion draft of our methodology and received feedback from four pre-selected respondents, Charles Mok, Sana Saleem, Michael Connor and Phil Bloomer, before opening up the floor up to questions and comments.

RDR was praised for its global scope and also as a possible tool to educate the companies themselves. Participants with prior experience in publishing rankings cautioned about the need to be transparent and credible, as well as the overall narrative of the project. One participant advised that our criteria should not only reflect company conduct (such as soliciting user feedback) but also measure its outcomes (such as implementing feedback received). Potential challenges raised included timeliness of an annual ranking of companies whose technologies and services change constantly and “survey fatigue” on the part of companies that are already being ranked and benchmarked on other issues like sustainability and supply chain labor rights.  The importance of advocacy partnerships with on-the-ground groups around the world was emphasized over and over again. Such partnerships will be central in ensuring that the data produced by the ranking will be used in a practical and effective way.

Developing a credible ranking methodology certainly is an undertaking that requires patience, commitment, and public dialogue. RightsCon was a wonderful opportunity to debut our methodology and receive initial feedback. Please keep an eye out for an updated version that will be posted for public consultation in the coming weeks!

Phase 1 Methodology discussion draft

Thanks to case study research conducted by our research partners and coordinated by a hard working team, we have developed a “discussion draft” of potential methodology elements to be used in ranking 50 Internet and telecommunications companies on freedom of expression and privacy criteria.

Right now we are proposing to ask 50 questions about these 50 companies. Answers to the questions will be scored. Companies will be ranked according to their total scores, likely with sub-scores for “privacy” and “freedom of expression” since we anticipate some companies will be stronger in one or the other and it will be meaningful to show those differences.

We welcome comments from anybody who might be affected by such a ranking. We would also like to hear from people who might want to use it in different ways: as users of technology, as investors, as activists, as policymakers, or as journalists.

There is still much work to be done before the methodology is ready to implement in full.  After presenting it at RightCon next week and receiving initial feedback, we will try to work out some of the unresolved issues, make another set of revisions, then post the revised version online for a six week public comment period. We will publish a final Phase 1 Pilot Methodology along with the case studies that helped us develop it by mid-2014. In the second half of 2014 we will conduct a pilot study looking at approximately 10 of the companies listed in the draft. The results of the pilot will inform further revisions, as long as a set of advocacy, engagement, and media strategies.

If all goes as planned we will then implement the full “Phase 1″ ranking for Internet and telecommunications companies in 2015.  “Phase 2″ adding device, equipment, and software companies will follow in 2016.

Please click here to download the full PDF document. Comments are welcome publicly via this blog’s comments section, or privately via e-mail to Rebecca MacKinnon (mackinnon AT newamerica DOT org).

RDR at Rightscon next week

Our friends at Access have organized an exciting conference called RightsCon, a three-day gathering in San Francisco next week “where human rights experts, investors, corporate leaders, engineers, activists, and government representatives from around the world work to advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on the possibilities within the technology sector.”

The Ranking Digital Rights team will hold a workshop at 10:30am on Wednesday March 5th in a room called “The MiniHub”. If you are coming to RightCon, please join us. (For the full conference schedule click here.)

In this brainstorming workshop, members of our  team will present our draft methodology for an annual ranking of the world’s most powerful Internet and telecommunications companies. We will invite RightsCon participants to help brainstorm on the best way to use the ranking to hold companies accountable.

Progress report: From case studies to a draft methodology

In the five months since I last posted a public update, our research partners in the United States, Brazil, the UK, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Egypt, China, and India have been hard at work conducting case study research on the Phase 1 Draft Criteria. We are all grateful to  human rights specialist and research coordinator Allon Bar, and research coordinator Richard Danbury, for their indispensable work in coordinating and conducting research as well as conducting outreach with civil society and corporate stake-holders. (Click here to learn more about Allon and Richard.)

Based on the results and recommendations made by our case study researchers (whose work will be published later this spring), we are now working to produce a discussion draft of the full methodology that will eventually be applied to evaluate and rank up to 50 major Internet and telecommunications companies across the world.

We plan to publish that discussion draft online for public comment in early March, both on this website as well as on the websites of allied organizations. The draft will also be presented at workshops at conferences such as Rightscon in San Francisco and Cyber-dialogue in Toronto. We will arrange further opportunities to for online and in-person feedback by stakeholders (civil society groups, investors, and companies) on the methodology as well.

In April and May we will revise the methodology based on the feedback we have received. The revised version will be published in May alongside the edited case studies, plus other research materials that will provide context and background for those wanting to understand how the methodology was developed.

Before our methodology is  applied to dozens of the world’s most powerful ICT sector companies in a public ranking, it is important to prepare the field so that those we are seeking to serve (civil society advocates and investors) and influence (companies and policymakers) will be in a position to use and act upon the data that we aim to generate on an annual basis.

To that end, we continue to re-evaluate and revise our work plan and timeline for 2014 and 2015.  In the Summer and Fall of 2014 we are likely to conduct a pilot study applying the methodology we are now developing, with the aim of rolling out the full annual ranking in 2015.  The precise nature and scope of that pilot study will be shaped by the results of the methodology consultation phase that we are about to launch.

None of the above would be possible without the continued support of our funders. We continue to reach out to other potential funders and  partners whose support would be compatible with maintaining the integrity and independence of our work. Suggestions are always welcome!