What do we mean by mobile ecosystems?

People around the world increasingly access the Internet through handheld devices we call “smartphones.” These devices are of course much more than telephones: they are handheld computers, photo and video camera—the gateways to data stored in remote servers, GPS-enabled maps, tracking devices, and more. Companies that produce these devices are gatekeepers for countless types of software applications that are downloaded via their app stores that have serious implications with both free expression and privacy.

RDR has therefore expanded the 2017 Index to include Apple (iOS), Google (Android) and Samsung (implementation of Android)—makers of mobile devices and software products that we call “mobile ecosystems.”

But what do we mean by “mobile ecosystems”? Our definition is: “the indivisible set of goods and services offered by a mobile device company, comprising the device hardware, operating system, app store and user account.”

Broadly speaking, consumers can choose between two competing product families for mobile Internet access, each of which is centered around a private company: Google and Apple (there are other mobile ecosystems (ie Windows and Blackberry) but these companies currently represent a small share of the market).

The two product families differ in many ways. While all components of Apple’s iOS ecosystem are firmly under the company’s control, the Android ecosystem is more fragmented. The Android operating system is open-source, which allows a variety of manufacturers to adapt it for their own devices. And unlike with iOS, there are a number of Android app stores from which users can download apps.

However Google and Apple are alike in one key aspect: with either product, users must create a user account with the company, they are limited in their choice of hardware (Google offers more options but it still excludes iPhones and Windows phones); they must commit to a particular operating system; and they will generally install new software (apps) through the app store associated with the company in question. Crucially, users can’t mix and match, pairing (for example) Apple hardware with the Android operating system, and installing apps from both the Apple and Google App Stores. They must commit to one set of products and services, which are linked through the user account (Google account or Apple account).

In addition to its core elements (hardware, operating system, app store, and user account), each ecosystem involves more-or-less optional services for which it is possible to mix and match between Google, Apple, and other providers, or not to use at all: email, cloud storage, office software, web browsers, music subscription services, messaging apps, and more. Such services are evaluated separately.

RDR en español

RDR en españolWe are pleased to announce the Spanish-language release of the executive summary of the 2015 Corporate Accountability Index, the Research Indicators, and America Móvil company profile. Funded by Internews and translated by Global Voices Fair Trade Translation, these documents are a crucial step in making our research approach and findings available to global audiences, notably Latin American civil society organizations and ICT companies that operate in the region.

Indeed, privacy and freedom of expression are under threat in Latin America as governments across the region deploy increasingly sophisticated ways to control the flow of information online. In Spain as well, the “Gag Law” (Ley Mordaza) presents a threat to privacy and freedom of expression. Fortunately, a growing number of civil society organizations are dedicated to advocating for digital rights, and we hope they will find these translated documents useful in their work.

RDR’s Allon Bar and Nathalie Maréchal are at the Internet Freedom Festival this week in Valencia, Spain, and would be delighted to meet with colleagues from the Spanish-speaking world and beyond.

Resumen executivo Indice de Responsabilidad Corporativa 2015
Indicadores de Investigacion 2015
Perfíl America Movil
RDR @ IFF blog post

Updated March 24: The Spanish translation of the full Index is now online!

RDR @ the 2016 Internet Freedom Festival

Internet Freedom Festival. Come celebrate the free internet with us! 1-6 March 2016, Valencia, Spain

Ranking Digital Rights is organizing a full day of sessions on Saturday, March 5 as part of the Internet Freedom Festival held at Las Naves in Valencia, Spain. The full schedule is available here.

If you want to learn more about how NGOs are encouraging ICT companies to respect human rights, come to our first session, “Holding Companies to Account: Advocating for Corporate Respect for Human Rights” at 10am in the Auditorium. Allon Bar and Nathalie Maréchal will join Jillian York and Sarah Myers West of OnlineCensorship.org to compare the experiences of our two projects and discuss methods to push tech companies to better respect human rights. The session will be structured as a conversation between members of each project and then a Q&A with the community.

Interested in ranking technology companies in your country? If so, come  to Taller 2 (workshop 2) for “Ranking ICT companies on digital rights: A ‘how to’ guide” from 11am to 1pm on Saturday. Led by Nathalie and Allon, this interactive workshop will guide participants through the initial steps of launching a ranking similar to RDR’s Index, but on the national or local level. Interested participants are encouraged to RSVP to Nathalie (marechal [at] rankingdigitalrights [dot] org).

Do you have ideas to share? Come  to Taller 2 on Saturday from 3 to 5 pm for “Ranking tech companies part 2: software, devices and networking equipment.” We are hard at work revising the methodology for the next iteration of the Index, and we need your input! In this session we invite privacy and freedom of expression experts, technical specialists, and other participants to discuss how to best incorporate companies that make and sell software, devices, and networking equipment into RDR’s methodology

Ranking such companies brings challenges such as ensuring the indicators are comparable across diverse product ranges, comprehending dense company documents,, and dealing with the fact that these types of companies may have more limited public disclosure. At the same time, it is clear that people who use  of these products may suffer because of how products are configured and what operational decisions companies make. Devices and software may have access to location data or biometric information about their users, they may restrict certain types of web visits, encrypt device storage, etc. These features impact users’ rights to freedom of expression and privacy. That makes it especially important to devise an approach to benchmark software producers and device and network equipment manufacturers.

Some of the specific questions we’d like to brainstorm about include:

  • what specific products should be included?
  • what indicators of the 2015 Corporate Accountability Index can be used directly for these other types of companies?
  • what indicators should be adapted?
  • what indicators should be added?

This session is focused on ensuring that privacy and free expression issues of concern to attendees can be incorporated in the Index. Here again, we’d appreciate if interested attendees could RSVP to Nathalie (marechal [at] rankingdigitalrights [dot] org).

At least part of the team will be present for the entire Festival and we’d love to connect with you, so please reach out!

Fellowship Opportunities with RDR

Ranking Digital Rights is pleased to announce two fellowship opportunities for 2016:

Information Controls Fellowship Program

COMPASS Summer Fellows Program

Ranking Digital Rights will also consider fellows sponsored through other funding schemes. All prospective fellows are encouraged to contact Nathalie Marechal (marechal@rankingdigitalrights.org) with any questions not covered by this web page or by the links provided.


  • Graduate student or seasoned researcher with background in computer science, engineering, Internet and telecommunications law, communication studies, or other relevant field
  • Strong technical background
  • Prior academic research experience or professional work related to freedom of expression, censorship, privacy, and surveillance in the ICT sector
  • Prior experience working collaboratively with teams and meeting deadlines
  • International experience and ability to read at least one language other than English is a major plus

Information Controls Fellowship Program

The Open Technology Fund’s Information Controls Fellowship Program (ICFP) cultivates research, outputs, and creative collaboration at different levels and across institutions on the topic of information controls – specifically repressive Internet censorship and surveillance. Applicants develop their own research plan, which must adhere to the parameters described on the program website.

Senior Fellowship
Start date: Flexible; Summer or Fall 2016
Duration: 6 months or 12 months
Eligibility: Graduate students and seasoned researchers with backgrounds in computer science, engineering, Internet and telecommunications law, or communications studies with a strong technical background
Application deadline: March 25, 2016
Stipend: $4,200 per month, plus travel allowance ($2,500 for 6 months, $5,000 for 12 months)

A senior fellow might focus their work in one of several ways:

  • Support a regional research partner in developing and launching a national or regional version of the Index;
  • Work with NGOs or research partners to develop related research and/or technical testing projects, using the Index data as a starting point, or the fellow might develop such a project themselves as proof of concept for other researchers to emulate or expand upon;
  • Carry out a year-long research and pilot testing project that would produce a proposal for how we might modify the Index methodology to add new technologies and/or company types.

Seasonal Fellowship
Start date: Flexible; Summer or Fall 2016
Duration: three months
Eligibility: Graduate students and seasoned researchers with backgrounds in computer science, engineering, Internet and telecommunications law, or communications studies with a strong technical background.
Application deadline: March 25, 2016
Stipend: $2,500 per month

A seasonal fellow might focus their work in one of several ways:

  • Carry out a research project designed to help us to identify, develop, and/or test out changes to the Index research methodology to accommodate new types of companies or technologies.
  • Specific responsibilities to be assigned based on the fellow’s skills and interests, and on the needs of the project.

For more information on the Information Controls Fellowship Program, see https://www.opentech.fund/fellowships/icfp.

COMPASS Summer Fellows Program

Start date: June 2016
Duration: Eight weeks
Eligibility: Must be PhD student in Communication at a participating university
Application deadline: Varies by school
Stipend: Varies by school

The Consortium on Media Policy Studies (COMPASS) supports eight-week fellowships for PhD students in Communication Studies from participating universities, providing them with valuable experience and insight into the world of media policy-making in Washington, DC.

Fellows must first apply for funding through their sponsoring university before applying for placement with Ranking Digital Rights. They commit to eight weeks of full-time work at Ranking Digital Rights’ Washington, DC offices, and to participating in other activities organized by the COMPASS program.

The 2016 COMPASS Fellow will primarily conduct research for the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index. Other responsibilities to be assigned based on the fellow’s skills and interests, and on the needs of the project.

For more information on the COMPASS program, see http://compassconsortium.org/.

How will people use the Index? Brainstorming at the IGF

YouTube video of 2015 IGF RDR/Internews session on Using the Corporate Accountability Index for Research and Advocacy

YouTube video of 2015 IGF workshop Benchmarking ICT companies on digital rights

After a series of launch events in the U.S., the RDR Corporate Accountability Index took to the global stage earlier this month as members of the RDR team presented the Index’s results at the Internet Governance Forum, an opportunity to engage with civil society advocates, researchers, government officials and private sector representatives from around the world. We received feedback on the project, and brainstormed about future activities with potential partners and collaborators

Reactions to the Index were positive. Several people commented on the painstakingly detailed approach to data collection and analysis. This is data one can stand behind. Most of the critiques could be summarized as “do more of the same… much, much more.” More companies, more services, in more markets… which of course requires more resources than the project currently possesses, but we are working on it…

Another common concern is that the Index measures disclosed policies and practices but does not take the next step to verify whether companies are actually carrying out the policies and practices that they describe. We also lack the resources to do such work, which would require on-the-ground staff in many countries. Instead, we welcome researchers and advocates to develop projects that would carry out the verification work in a globally distributed way: it would be ideal if a multitude of advocacy groups and academic institutions could develop their own approaches to verify and track how companies’ policies and practices are actually experienced by users in different parts of the world.

We also learned more about similar yet complementary projects that approach the same issue — corporate responsibility to respect human rights online — from different angles. If this ecosystem can seem like a messy patchwork at first glance, the conversations that RDR participated in highlighted the importance of collaboration between projects. As Carolina Botero, of Colombia’s Fundación Karisma, shared during our Day 2 workshop, being able to tell representatives from domestic Internet service providers that transparency reporting is now a standard practice that global giants like Google and Facebook routinely engage in was key in changing the tone of the conversation, which had been rather confrontational until then.

Day 0: Brainstorming Session

On “Day 0” of the conference devoted to self-organized events by conference attendees, RDR and Internews held a research and advocacy brainstorming session around the newly released Corporate Accountability Index. What additional research projects could emerge from the Index data, and how can the Index support advocacy?

Following opening remarks by David Kaye, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and a presentation of the Corporate Accountability Index, the Ranking Digital Rights team engaged the participants in a wide-ranging discussion of the Index, its potential for both research and advocacy, and also its limitations.

Participants rightly pointed out that while this evaluation of 16 companies is a commendable start, future iterations of the Index (ideally on an annual basis) will have greater impact if they include a wider range of companies, including more of the companies’ direct competitors. This, of course, is contingent on a combination of successful fundraising and on forging partnerships with civil society groups around the world. All of Ranking Digital Rights materials’, including our methodology and research guidance, are freely available under Creative Commons licensing, and we encourage our colleagues in the digital rights space to consider applying the RDR criteria to a wider range of companies and subsidiaries, for example by doing regional or country-specific rankings.

A thornier limitation is that because it only evaluates publicly available information (for reasons documented here), the Index cannot address the issue of company practices that diverge from their stated commitments. While there is a clear need to highlight this kind of disparity where it exists, our research has revealed that it is much more common for companies to simply not have a policy in place, or to have a an internal policy that users and the general public have no access to. We believe that RDR can best promote greater corporate accountability for human rights by incentivizing companies to develop and make public policies surrounding commitment to human rights, privacy and freedom and expression. Once companies make public commitments and disclosures, it is then possible for stakeholders to hold them accountable by verifying that they are living up to their commitments and actually adhering to their own stated policies. One project aiming to highlight companies’ actual practices is the recently launched OnlineCensorship.org, where users are able to submit their experiences with content takedown and other online censorship. Lumen (formerly Chilling Effects) allows users to upload information about take-down requests and receive information about their legal rights.

Day 2: Benchmarking ICT companies on digital rights

On Day 2 of the IGF, Rebecca MacKinnon participated in a roundtable workshop on “Benchmarking ICT companies on digital rights,” which I moderated. The participants’ experiences point to the diversity of strategies that can be effective in getting companies to improve their respect for digital rights: from star-based ratings like the EFF’s Who Has Your Back? and Fundación Karisma’s ¿Dónde están mis datos? to the RDR Index’s granular scoring system, there is more than one way to encourage ICT companies to respect human rights. The Transparency Reporting Index maintained by Access Now is formidable resource for activists from a wide variety of subsectors, providing links and brief descriptions for the transparency reports of more than 50 global companies. The Terms of Service & Human Rights project translates the “legalese” that these documents are usually written in into plain language that users can understand, thus empowering them to make informed decisions about the services they use. It is clear that these projects, and others, rely on and support one another. All human rights advocacy is an ecosystem to an extent, but this is all the more true when we’re dealing with multinational corporations whose actions impact users all over the world in different but related ways.

Comments by Cecille Soria of Democracy.Net.PH and Kelly Kim of Open Net Korea reinforced the importance of starting with a low bar and raising it gradually. While both Democracy.Net.PH and Open Net Korea would eventually like to start ranking projects using the RDR criteria, the reality is that many companies in their respective countries do not currently provide the kind of information that the Index’s methodology seeks to surface. Even though the South Korean company Kakao stood out for its relatively robust disclosures in the RDR Index, Kim said Korean companies still have considerable progress to make. Open Net Korea plans to focus on getting companies to publish regular transparency reports before scrutinizing the contents of those reports. This echoed the earlier comments from the EFF’s Jeremy Malcolm, who noted that the Who Has Your Back? report has gradually raised the bar for the companies it evaluates.