Internet and telecommunications companies, along with mobile device and networking equipment manufacturers, exert growing influence over the political and civil lives of people all over the world. These companies share a responsibility to respect human rights. The Ranking Digital Rights project is developing a system to evaluate and rank the world’s major Information and Communication Technology (ICT) companies on how they respect users’ rights to free expression and privacy. The first public ranking will be launched in late 2015.
Our work aims to a) inform companies, individual users, civil society, academics, investors, governments, and the public about the relationship between the ICT sector and human rights; b) encourage companies to develop, deliver and manage products and services in a manner consistent with international human rights norms; c) identify what specific legal and political factors prevent or hinder companies from respecting users’ and customers’ human rights.
This website has documented all stages of our work since we started research and consultations in early 2013. We are presently conducting a pilot study to test out the methodology and research protocols before implementing the full public ranking in 2015. For more detailed information about our work plan, timeline, and methodology please click on the menus and links at the top of the page. Recent developments are described in blog posts linked from the right-hand menu.
Research and analysis has now been completed on the Phase 1 Pilot Study conducted in partnership with Sustainalytics, a leading independent research firm with extensive experience assessing the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance of global companies.
The purpose of the study was to test the latest iteration of our Phase 1 methodology on 12 companies. Based on what we’ve learned from the pilot, we will further revise the methodology and research process before implementing the full Phase 1 ranking for public launch in late 2015. To that end, we have written the first draft of a pilot report. Over the next several weeks we will seek feedback on the draft from stakeholders and experts. After further revision we plan to publish it later in March.
We are also pleased to announce the publication of several new documents that help to explain the research and consultation process that we undertook to develop the methodology:
- An updated discussion of Human Rights Risk Scenarios
- An background paper on the project’s Theory and Strategy
- An overview plus individual summaries of the findings and recommendations from our 2013-2014 Phase 1 Case Study Research that informed the drafting of the methodology.
Links to those documents and other resources related to the methodology development, plus links to all versions of the methodology, can be found on this page.
We are pleased to announce the release of a new report edited and co-written by several members of the Ranking Digital Rights project team and affiliated research partners, published this week by United Nations Educational, Science, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries examines in detail how legal, regulatory, and commercial frameworks help or hinder Internet companies’ ability to foster free expression online.
Research for the 200-page report, supported by the Internet Society, Open Society Foundations, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Global Communication Studies was conducted in the first half of 2014 by a global team working in North and South America, South and East Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. They examined 11 Internet services with a focus on search engines, social networks, and Internet service providers (ISPs) operating across 10 countries. The result is a uniquely global perspective on how information flows online as well as how content gets restricted, by whom, and under what circumstances.
According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, governments have the primary duty to protect human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to privacy (which itself is considered a prerequisite for freedom of expression). All companies, including those that operate Internet platforms and services, also have a responsibility to respect those rights. The report takes stock of how companies are doing in this regard, and how governments either help or hinder companies from upholding their human rights responsibilities. It identifies two broad categories of problems:
Governments are making it hard for companies to respect users’ free expression rights. The problem exists to varying degrees across the gamut of political systems and cultural contexts. The report identifies cases around the world in which laws, government policies, and regulations – even those enacted by well-meaning public servants seeking to address genuine problems of crime, terror, and child protection – not only erode free expression rights online but also cause companies to carry out censorship and surveillance, affecting speech that should be protected and respected under human rights law.
A major culprit is law that holds companies legally responsible – liable – for what their users say and do. The legal term for this is “intermediary liability.” While countries like China have long blacklists of words and phrases that companies must delete if they want to stay in business, censorship can still be heavy in some democracies. Facebook received more government requests to censor content in India than in any other country where it makes an effort to operate (Facebook is blocked in China).
Companies are not transparent enough about how they restrict content and collect or share user data. Despite the clear problems that governments cause, companies are not doing enough to minimize users’ freedom of expression from being unduly restricted when they comply with government demands or enforce their own terms of service. Companies also need to be more transparent about how these actions affect users’ ability to express themselves or access information – as well as clarify who has access to users’ personal information and under what circumstances.
A growing number of companies, mainly in the US and Europe, have started to issue transparency reports with data about the number of government requests they receive and how many they comply with. But many companies report more extensively on user data requests than on censorship requests, and many do not report any information at all about requests for content restriction or how they comply.
Vodafone started to report last year about the law enforcement requests it receives for user data and bulk surveillance. But it is not transparent about content removals, including its role in a voluntary scheme in the UK to protect children from age-inappropriate content. In mid-2014 the non-profit Open Rights Group found that the system blocked adults from accessing content that included an article about postpartum depression and the blog of a Syrian commentator. Also, while companies like Twitter report extensively on content restrictions in response to legally binding external requests, they provide no information about content removed to enforce their private “Twitter rules.”
The report does not argue that people should be free to do anything they want online regardless of consequences. Rather, restriction of speech or interference in peoples’ privacy should be “necessary and proportionate,” based on clear legal authority to address a specific threat or crime, and should be as narrowly tailored as possible. Accountability mechanisms are key. Recommendations to governments and companies include:
- Laws and regulations affecting online speech must undergo due diligence to ensure they are compatible with international human rights norms.
- Policies at the national, regional, and international level that affect online speech need to be developed jointly by representatives of all affected stakeholder groups (such as industry, civil society groups, and technical experts).
- Transparency about censorship is just as important as transparency about surveillance. Transparency from governments and companies about how their censorship and content restriction processes work, in addition to public reporting about the amount and nature of content being restricted, is essential to prevent abuses and improve accountability.
- Companies that “self-regulate” by using private terms of service to restrict content that the law does not forbid, or which comply with extra-legal blacklists generated by non-governmental groups, must be transparent with the public about what is being restricted, under what circumstances, by whose authority.
- Governments and companies need to set up effective mechanisms for people to report abuses and grievances, as well as processes through which aggrieved parties can obtain redress.
Organizations such as Freedom House and the World Wide Web Foundation annually rank governments on how well they protect Internet users’ rights. Ranking Digital Rights is in the process of developing a parallel methodology to measure and compare companies’ respect for users’ rights around the world. Our first public ranking is scheduled for launch in late 2015. The UNESCO research helped our team refine our thinking about what standards companies should be expected to uphold despite the challenging and constantly changing patchwork of legal environments in which they operate.
In early December for the third year in a row, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights convened its annual Forum on Business and Human Rights. The purpose of the forum, according to the official website, is to operationalize core principles for business in respecting human rights around the world, in all sectors:
The United Nations Forum on Business and Human Rights is a space for representatives and practitioners from civil society, business, government, international organizations and affected stakeholders to take stock of challenges and discuss ways to move forward in carrying out the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights – a global standard for preventing and addressing the risk of adverse impacts on human rights linked to business activity.
The full three-day program can be downloaded here. I also recommend watching the videos of some of the plenary sessions, available here. I represented RDR for the first time at the forum on three different panels:
On the opening day, I was invited to represent RDR in a session called “Ranking business and human rights: The potential of benchmarking corporate respect for human rights” alongside leaders of the Access to Medicines Index, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands, plus a newly-launched project – even younger than RDR – called the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark.
On day two I discussed ways that civil society and researchers have engaged with Internet companies on free expression and privacy issues in a session called “Respect in practice – progress and challenges in implementing the corporate responsibility to respect Embedding the UN Guiding Principles in decision-making and processes“.
On day three, I moderated a session called The Right To Privacy in the Digital Age. Despite the fact that the panel started at 8am, the discussion was lively and rich, thanks to the insights of a diverse range of panelists. Here is the video:
This week marks the launch of our Phase 1 Pilot Study in partnership with Sustainalytics, a leading independent research firm with extensive experience assessing the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance of global companies.
The purpose of this pilot study is to test RDR’s newly revised Phase 1 Methodology in preparation for the 2015 launch of a full annual ranking of several dozen of the world’s largest publicly traded Information and Communication Technology (ICT) companies.
Over the coming month, Sustainalytics analysts will use the newly revised methodology to evaluate 12 publicly traded Internet and telecommunications companies operating around the world. This Phase 1 Pilot methodology is the product of extensive research followed by stakeholder consultation on two earlier drafts (archived here and here).
We are contacting the 12 companies this week to let them know that they have been selected for this pilot. They will be invited to review the initial research results for their own companies before Sustainalytics completes its analysis, after which RDR will work with Sustainalytics to finalize internal and public reports on the pilot’s findings.
While a public report on the lessons learned from the pilot study will be published in the first quarter of 2015, the actual company scores calculated for the pilot study will not be publicly released. Rather, we will use the data gathered from the pilot phase to further refine and adjust the methodology for use in the fully public, inaugural ranking on a much larger selection of companies that will be published in late 2015. We will also organize meetings and calls with stakeholders in the first quarter of 2015 to gather feedback on the pilot findings that will help us to maximize the ranking’s effectiveness and impact.
We are grateful to the many research partners and funders who have enabled the project to reach this exciting stage. RDR staff Priya Kumar and Allon Bar have worked tirelessly over the past months as well. We would also like to thank the hard-working team at Global Integrity who have built the back-end research management system for this pilot study with their research platform, Indaba.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is under 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.