New, global accountability mechanisms needed for a free and open internet

As governments around the world adopt internet regulations that clash with international human rights norms, new and more innovative mechanisms are needed to hold tech companies accountable to these standards, according to a new paper by Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) team members published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI).

In the paper, “Corporate Accountability for a Free and Open Internet,” authors Rebecca MacKinnon, Nathalie Marechal, and Priya Kumar make the case for how global human rights benchmarking and evaluation projects like RDR’s Corporate Accountability Index help fill “governance gaps” caused by the failure of traditional governance institutions to hold governments and companies accountable for protecting and respecting the rights of internet users around the world.     

“Private Internet intermediaries increasingly find themselves at odds with governments, with serious implications for human rights,” according to the authors. “Even where law does not compel companies to violate users’ rights, companies generally lack sufficient market and regulatory incentives to protect the human rights of all of their users.”

The authors therefore call for new cross-border accountability initiatives outside existing governance institutions that will strengthen and enforce corporate accountability in upholding international freedom of expression and privacy standards: “If international legal and treaty frameworks cannot adequately protect human rights, then other types of governance and accountability mechanisms are urgently needed to provide incentives to owners and operators of Internet platforms and services to respect human rights,” according to the authors.  

Ranking Digital Rights is one of several efforts that might serve as building blocks for such mechanisms and institutions, according to the authors. The inaugural Index, published in November 2015, ranked Internet and telecommunications companies on 31 indicators evaluating disclosed commitments, policies and practices affecting Internet users’ freedom of expression and right to privacy. These types of rankings, when combined with transparency and disclosure frameworks, can help foster greater accountability as well as respect for international human rights standards.

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