See you at RightsCon!

This week, the Ranking Digital Rights team is in Brussels for RightsCon, an annual conference on digital rights organized by Access Now. We are organizing and participating in several sessions and look forward to discussions with human rights and technology experts and advocates from all over the world.

On Wednesday March 29 at 2:30pm, we will host the European launch of the newly-released 2017 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index, which found that 22 of the world’s leading internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies are leaving users in the dark on their policies affecting free expression and privacy rights. Project director Rebecca MacKinnon will give a brief presentation highlighting the report’s key findings and recommendations, followed by a discussion with panelists and audience members. We hope the session will provide a jumping off point for further conversation throughout RightsCon with people interested in collaborating on research and advocacy. The launch event will be held in “Creativity & Exploration, 1st Floor.”

On Friday March 31 at 12pm, join us for “How to Talk So Companies Will Listen, and Listen So Companies Will Talk: Doing company advocacy and research.” In this roundtable discussion, seasoned researchers and advocates will share how they work to understand company policies and practices, and share insights on the most effective ways to engage with companies for change. Participants will discuss challenges they’ve encountered in their research and advocacy efforts as well as tips and best practices for overcoming them. This session will be held in “Evasion, 1st Floor.”

Rebecca MacKinnon is also speaking in the session, “Everything We Know About Internet Shutdowns,” on Wednesday March 29 at 12pm, in “Palace Ballroom I, Ground Floor.”

The full conference program is available here. Our team will be at RightsCon for the entire conference, so feel free to get in touch if you’d like to connect:

Can the internet sustain human rights?

People around the world increasingly rely on the internet and digitally networked devices in all aspects of their lives. But do we have a global information ecosystem in which future generations’ rights can be respected?

Unfortunately, the answer is “no,” according to our research. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) on March 23 launched its 2017 Corporate Accountability Index which ranks 22 of the world’s most powerful telecommunications, internet and mobile companies disclosed commitments and policies affecting user’s freedom of expression and privacy. Findings showed that companies did not disclose enough information about policies affecting users’ rightsand as a result most of the world’s internet users lack the information they need to make informed choices.  

Click image to watch video of the full event. (Photo by Niels ten Oever)

“There is tremendous room for improvement by all companies,” said project director Rebecca MacKinnon, despite positive steps by some companies since organization released its inaugural Index in 2015. Only two companiesGoogle and Microsoftscored more than 60 percent on this year’s Index, with the remaining 20 companies evaluated receiving failing grades.

This year’s Index included an evaluation of the “mobile ecosystems” controlled by Apple, Google and Samsung. Findings showed that Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Samsung’s implementation of Android all offered poor disclosure of policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. This is a particular concern given that most of the world’s new internet users are coming online with smartphones.  

MacKinnon also highlighted that companies overall struggled to disclose policies affecting users’ freedom of expression. For example, all telecommunications companies evaluated had insufficient disclosure on their policies for responding to requests for network shutdowns. Telefónica and Vodafone tied for the highest score on this indicator, but these companies still fell short. None of the telecommunications companies evaluated provided any information on the number of network shutdown requests with which they complied.

Companies that disclosed data breach-related policies.

While companies tend to focus more on privacy and security than freedom of expression, there are nonetheless serious gaps. On the indicator measuring company disclosure of their policies for responding to data breaches, only three out of all 22 companies evaluated, disclosed any information. This is troubling given recent news of various high-profile data breaches, and this issue is of particular concern for users and investors alike.

MacKinnon was joined for a panel discussion by Melissa Brown, Partner at Daobridge Capital and Arvind Ganesan, Director of Business and Human Rights at Human Rights Watch. Moderating the discussion was Niels ten Oever, Head of Digital at Article 19, and Open Technology Institute Director Kevin Bankston.

Panelists discussed whether rankings like the Index can motivate companies to change their policies make policy change. Does highlighting differences in company performance promote competition and a “race to the top”? Do companies that perform better do so because of their business models, because they have been exposed to public scrutiny for longer, or because of other factors?

As speakers noted, there have already been some improvements since the first Index in 2015. Bankston pointed out that in the 2015 report, not a single company received any credit for disclosure of data about content takedowns due to the company’s terms of service enforcement. In the 2017 Index, three companies received some credit on this indicator, and just this week Twitter released its latest transparency report, for the first time including some data on terms of service takedowns.

“With that domino falling, if the trend goes the way it usually does, this is going to become a common practice in the next five or ten years, and that will be due in no small part to the work of Ranking Digital Rights,” said Bankston.

Many people in the audience were concerned about poor company disclosure of the user information they collect, share, and retain. “If someone built a profile on me based on my use of Google, Facebook, AT&T, and my iPhone ecosystem, what kind of profile could be built about me? I need to have enough information that I have some sense of that so that I can then make informed choices. And right now, people are much too far in the dark on that.” One person asked whether it is harder to get companies to change when opacity about the handling of user information is connected to companies’ business model. Another audience member who works for  a company not covered by the Index responded: “If you don’t have people trusting you, you don’t have a business.”

The impetus for change can come not only from civil society activists and policymakers but also from investors. As Daobridge’s Capital’s Melissa Brown pointed out, investors are not monolithic:  some focus on human rights issues in general but few truly understand digital rights issues. However, Brown believes that the Index shows the extent to which “companies are outsourcing privacy and security risks to users,” without giving users enough information to understand or protect themselves against the risks. Over the long run, privacy and security will become “increasingly material” to investors, Brown said.

Fortunately, the Index provides a roadmap for companies to improve. Of course, the 2017 Index is just the beginning of the conversation. We look forward to continuing this dialogue, starting with RightsCon in Brussels next week!

A webcast of the event is available here.

Ranking Digital Rights 2017 Corporate Accountability Index launches on March 23rd!

We are excited to announce that on March 23rd at 9:30am ET (13:30 GMT/UTC) Ranking Digital Rights will launch the 2017 Corporate Accountability Index: a ranking of 22 of the world’s most powerful telecommunications, internet, and mobile companies on their commitments and disclosed policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy.

The 2017 Index follows the inaugural 2015 Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index which found widespread failure by companies to disclose key information about their policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy. Users were left largely in the dark about how and why their information is collected, used, and shared, as well as many of the circumstances under which content is blocked or removed.

Click here to join us on launch day to find out what has changed since 2015, what companies can do to improve, and why it matters. Presentation of the Index results will be followed by a discussion about how consumers, activists, investors, and companies themselves can use that data to ensure that, as businesses power and shape our internet, they also do a better job of respecting our rights.

The launch will be webcast globally; visit this page on the day of the event to access the video. Join the conversation online by using #rankingrights and by following @rankingrights.

RDR @ the 2016 IGF

Last week, Ranking Digital Rights traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico for the the 11th Internet Governance Forum. The theme this year was “Enabling Inclusive and Sustainable Growth.” In all of the workshops and panels we participated in, our message focused on a central concern: as the next billion people get connected to the internet, their human rights need to be protected and respected by governments and companies. We believe that our Corporate Accountability Index produces data and analysis that can help governments, businesses, and civil society work together to address the concrete challenges in protecting, respecting, and defending human rights in the digital age.

Many of the official IGF sessions and side meetings provoked thoughtful discussion and provided us with ample opportunity to share insights from our work researching and analyzing Internet and telecommunications companies’ human rights-related public disclosures.

Some of the issues we highlighted included:

It is crucial that people have control over how their identities are presented online, as Rebecca MacKinnon noted in the session Human Rights: Broadening the Conversation. Real identity policies are pernicious, particularly for gender minorities and members of marginalized groups, and companies should bear this in mind when determining the choices they provide users.

We stressed the importance of companies disclosing information relating to government requests for user data – both in terms of their processes for responding to these requests, including indicating that they push back against inappropriate or overly broad requests, as well as data about the number of government requests received and with which they complied. This issue was also highlighted by civil society activists from Mexico, who noted that Mexican authorities often obtain user information without oversight or judicial warrants.

We also pointed out that governments have an important role to play to ensure companies adequately respect human rights. In some instances, regulatory ambiguity can leave companies unsure if the law prohibits disclosure on certain issues, and therefore they withhold publishing information on their policies or practices. We’ve also seen in our research that in countries that haven’t passed data protection laws, companies tend to not adhere to best practices for collection of user information.

Combatting online violent extremism was a recurring topic of discussion, particularly in light of the recent announcement that Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter planned to create “a shared industry database of ‘hashes’ — unique digital ‘fingerprints’ — for violent terrorist imagery or terrorist recruitment videos or images that [they] have removed from [their] services.” We again stressed the need for transparency and accountability for such a system, and for independent review for how images are included in it, as we’ve found that companies’ disclosure around their Terms of Service enforcement is often lacking. Companies have been under enormous pressure from governments to do something about this issue. At the same time, any new measures taken to facilitate the removal of content need to be carried out in a manner that is responsible, accountable, and respects users’ rights. It is vital that companies work closely with civil society to make sure that implementation of the new database system does not inflict new “collateral damage” on freedom of expression.  

Although much of the human rights trends highlighted by civil society at the conference were negative, as censorship and surveillance are on the rise around the world, there is also some cause for optimism. Many ICT companies, particularly those that are members of the Global Network Initiative, are making commitments to respect human rights throughout their operations and carrying out due diligence to ensure these commitments are upheld. This may include instituting board-level oversight on privacy and free expression matters, creating mechanisms for grievance and remedy, and conducting human rights impact assessments. These practices, among others, are evaluated in the “Governance” section of our 2017 methodology (previously referred to as “Commitment” in the 2015 Index). As MacKinnon concluded in the session Implementing Human Rights Standards to the ICT Sector, “Despite all of our complaints, which are many and justified, I think things would be a lot worse if we hadn’t had this system where companies are being held accountable to whether or not they are implementing their [human rights] commitments and whether or not they have a system in place.”

In addition to the official IGF sessions, we met with representatives from civil society, governments, the private sector, academia, and others to discuss a wide range of issues. Several of RDR’s research partners also attended the IGF, and we had a productive meeting with them to share and receive feedback on our ongoing research process and also begin brainstorming plans around the 2017 Index launch this March.

We’re looking forward to continuing many of these conversations in the new year, and in the lead-up to the launch of our 2017 Corporate Accountability Index, which will be launched in advance of RightsCon in late March. Stay tuned!

#KeepItOn: Corporate Accountability for Network Shutdowns


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.