#KeepItOn: Corporate Accountability for Network Shutdowns

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Internet shutdowns are bad for human rights – as this YouTube video by RDR advocacy partner Access Now clearly illustrates, and as the UN Human Rights council asserted in a landmark resolution this past summer. Shutdowns are also bad for business. A recent paper by the Brookings Institution found that between July 2015 and June 2016, 81 short-term shutdowns of the internet by 19 countries cost the global economy over $2.6 billion in GDP.

For both reasons, the UK-based investor advocacy group ShareAction and Access Now recently co-published an Investor Brief explaining why investors should be concerned, and suggesting questions they should be asking of the telecommunications companies in whose stock they invest. Last month ShareAction and UNPRI (Principles for Responsible Investment) hosted an investor briefing event in their London offices. RDR was asked to present at the meeting alongside Access Now and the Global Network Initiative, whose members have also been speaking out against the harms of network shutdowns. The Investor Brief cites RDR as a useful tool for investors in evaluating companies’ performance on digital rights including network shutdowns, and notes which companies that performed poorly in RDR’s 2015 Index have also been connected to internet shutdowns.

While our 2015 Index methodology did not have a dedicated indicator focusing exclusively on network shutdowns, specific elements within several of the 2015 “freedom of expression” indicators examined company policies and practices in relation to network shutdowns. Specifically F4: Reasons for account or service restriction, F5: Notify users of restriction, and F6: Process for responding to third party requests which includes requests to restrict or shut down networks, and F7: Data about government requests which included data about requests to shut down networks. Other indicators in the commitment section also sought due diligence and accountability policies and mechanisms that would have an impact on how companies handle government demands to shut down networks.

For the 2017 Index, in response to the growing problem of network shutdowns and the need to highlight company policy and practice in relation to them, we have consolidated elements related to network shutdowns into a single indicator, F10: Network shutdowns, which states:

The company should clearly explain the circumstances under which it may shut down or restrict access to the network or to specific protocols, services, or applications on the network.

In order to evaluate telecommunications companies on this indicator we evaluate their disclosures on eight “element” questions:

  1. Does the company clearly explain the reason(s) why it may shut down service to a particular area or group of users?
  2. Does the company clearly explain why it may restrict access to specific applications or protocols (e.g., VoIP, messaging) in a particular area or to a specific group of users?
  3. Does the company clearly explain its process for responding to requests to shut down a network or restrict access to a service?
  4. Does the company commit to push back on requests to shut down a network or restrict access to a service?
  5. Does the company clearly disclose that it notifies users directly when it shuts down the network or restricts access to a service?
  6. Does the company list the number of network shutdown requests it receives?
  7. Does the company clearly identify the specific legal authority that makes the request?
  8. Does the company list the number of requests with which it complied?

Stay tuned for the launch of the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index in March 2017 to find out which companies do best and worst on this indicator.

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