Publications

September 21, 2017
Title: 2017 RDR Investor Research Note: Poor Digital Rights Performance—Who Pays the Price?
Authors: Melissa Brown, Rebecca MacKinnon
Abstract: When companies fail to respect users’ privacy and freedom of expression, users clearly pay a price—but so do investors. This research note introduces global investors to the evaluation framework, analysis and data produced by Ranking Digital Rights, which ranks the world’s most important internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies on disclosed policies affecting users’ privacy and freedom of expression. The goal is to build investor awareness of potential material risks related to digital rights in order to inform investment research and decisions, and to support investor engagement with companies on these issues.

March 23, 2017
Title: 2017 Corporate Accountability Index
Authors: Ranking Digital Rights
Abstract: The Ranking Digital Rights 2017 Corporate Accountability Index evaluates 22 of the world’s most powerful internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies on disclosed commitments and policies affecting freedom of expression and privacy. Together, the companies evaluated in the Index offer products and services that are used by at least half of the world’s 3.7 billion internet users. We regret to report that companies do not disclose enough information to their users about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression and privacy. As a result, most of the world’s internet users lack the information they need to make informed choices. We are also pleased to report, however, that many companies have made meaningful improvements since our inaugural Index was launched in late 2015. This Index builds on the 2015 Index, adding six new companies and expanding the methodology to include what we call “mobile ecosystems.” Companies were evaluated on 35 indicators examining disclosed commitments and policies affecting freedom of expression and privacy, including corporate governance and accountability mechanisms. To view in-depth results and data visualizations, download full datasets, and access related resources, news, and updates, please visit: rankingdigitalrights.org/index2017.

February, 2017
Title:
Progress and peril: the role of ICT companies in promoting and curtailing human rights
Authors:
Priya Kumar, Revati Presad, Nathalie Maréchal
Abstract:
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights the centrality of information and communications technology (ICT) to 21st century development. Tools like e-learning, “smart infrastructure,” service delivery databases, and mobile devices hold great potential to help meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through partnerships between national governments and private companies. Any strategy for the use of ICTs to promote human rights and development must acknowledge that private entities develop most ICTs. Such companies help people access information, conduct business, and connect with others, but their role as gatekeepers also makes them choke points, particularly related to freedom of expression and privacy. Although ICT companies have taken steps to provide greater insight about how their actions affect human rights, far more transparency is needed hold these companies to account. If the SDGs are to “realize human rights for all,” it is imperative that ICT for development (ICT4D) projects take steps to mitigate the risks that come from using ICTs. These technologies pose particular threats to privacy and freedom of expression, which jeopardizes people’s ability to advocate for human rights more broadly without fear of reprisal. This article outlines the human rights risks of increased use of ICTs and offers a framework for private sector and government actors to mitigate them. While acknowledging the real and potential benefits of increased ICT use in advancing development and human rights, the article provides examples of threats to human rights that stem from the policies and practices of ICT companies. It concludes with specific recommendations for companies and guidance for governments that seek to influence the private sector in this regard. Notably, it calls for governments and donors to exercise due diligence in evaluating companies’ commitment to human rights when choosing private sector partners for ICT4D projects.

December 21, 2016
Title:
Corporate Accountability for a Free and Open Internet
Authors:
Rebecca MacKinnon, Nathalie Maréchal, Priya Kumar
Abstract:
Private Internet intermediaries increasingly find themselves at odds with governments, with serious implications for human rights. While companies face tougher data protection and privacy laws in some jurisdictions, they also face growing legal requirements to comply with mass surveillance, weaken encryption and facilitate censorship in ways that contravene international human rights standards. In many countries, they face increasing legal liability for users’ activities. 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 resulting global “governance gaps” require new types of cross-border institutions and mechanisms to strengthen companies’ ability to respect users’ rights and to hold firms accountable.

December 2016
Title: Privacy Policies and Their Lack of Clear Disclosure Regarding the Life Cycle of User Information
Author: Priya Kumar
Abstract: Companies, particularly those in the information and communications technology sector, collect, aggregate, and store immense amounts of information about billions of people around the world. Privacy policies represent the primary means through which companies articulate to the public how they manage this user information. Extensive research has documented the problems with such policies, including that they are difficult to understand. This paper presents an analysis of 23 policies from 16 of the world’s largest internet and telecommunications companies and shows the specific ways that vague or unclear language hinders comprehension of company practice. It argues that the lack of clarity in such policies presents a significant barrier toward empowering people to make informed choices about which products or services to use. The incoherent language in privacy policies can also hinder the widespread adoption of machine learning or other techniques to analyze such policies. Clearer disclosure from companies about how they use, share, and retain all types of information they collect will shed light on what the life cycle of user information looks like.

November 2016
Title:
Submission to David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
Author: Rebecca MacKinnon
Abstract: This document is submitted in response to the Special Rapporteur’s “Call for submissions from NGOs and other stakeholders: Study on Telecommunications and Internet Access Sector.” The Call seeks information from stakeholders on three sets of questions. This memo will focus primarily on the first two questions, focusing on state regulation and company policies and practices, as they pertain to telecommunications companies.

October 2016
Title:
When Bots Tweet: Toward a Normative Framework For Bots on Social Networking Sites
Author:
Nathalie Maréchal
Abstract: Political actors are using algorithms and automation to sway public opinion, notably through the use of “bot” accounts on social networking sites. This article considers the responsibility of social networking sites and other platforms to respect human rights, such as freedom of expression and privacy. It then proposes a set of standards for chat bots operating on these platforms, building on the existing policies of leading social networking platforms and on the indicators laid out by Ranking Digital Rights. A good normative framework for the use of bots on social networking sites should have three components: bots should clearly be labeled as such, they should not contact other users without consent, and information collected by them should only be used for disclosed purposes.

May 7, 2016
Title:
Ranking Digital Rights: Pushing ICT Companies to Respect User Privacy
Author: Priya Kumar
Abstract: It is well understood that technology companies collect and use data about people in ways that pose risks to privacy.  But until now, little research has compared the extent to which global companies commit to respect users’ rights, including privacy.  The Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index compares the public commitments and disclosures of 16 of the world’s largest Internet and telecommunications companies on criteria related to freedom of expression and privacy. This paper describes the index’s findings on corporate handling of user information.  It also highlights how the index, whose criteria are grounded in international human rights standards and Privacy by Design principles, can push companies to better respect the privacy of their users.

January 29, 2016
Title:
Submission to UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye: Study on Freedom of Expression and the Private Sector in the Digital Age
Author:
Rebecca MacKinnon
Abstract:
In November 2015 RDR launched its inaugural Corporate Accountability Index, which evaluates 16 of the world’s most powerful Internet and telecommunications companies on their disclosed commitments, policies, and practices that affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy.  The Index methodology for evaluating companies’ policies and practices affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy rights was developed over a two year period of collaborative research and stakeholder consultation. It builds directly upon a number of established and emerging principles, processes and standards, including the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, the Global Network Initiative’s Principles and Implementation Guidelines, and a number of other standards related to freedom of expression, privacy, data protection, and security.  We believe that lessons learned during our methodology development process, as well as the Index findings, can be of value to a UN study on freedom of expression and the private sector in the digital age.

January 13, 2016
Title:
Ranking Digital Rights Findings on Transparency Reporting and Companies’ Terms of Service Enforcement
Author:
Priya Kumar
Abstract: The Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) 2015 Corporate Accountability Index includes several indicators on companies’ transparency reporting practices with regard to free expression and privacy. Three indicators focus on companies’ terms of service (TOS) enforcement (F3, F4, F9). Three indicators focus on companies’ disclosure of their processes and reporting related to third-party requests for content restriction (F6, F7, F8). Two indicators focus on companies’ disclosure of their processes and reporting related to third-party requests for user data (P9, P11). See the appendix for definitions of key terms, full text of the indicators, and links to Index data about company performance.

2015
Title: Ranking Digital Rights: Human Rights, the Internet and the Fifth Estate
Author: Nathalie Maréchal
Abstract: In this essay, I will use the example of a new human rights advocacy project, Ranking Digital Rights, as the basis for a broader discussion of civil society activism, the new global public sphere and the protection of human rights in the 21st century. This article is part of a broader research agenda in which I consider the rapid evolution of norms governing access to and control of information that I believe characterizes the beginning of the 21st century. Conceptually, Ranking Digital Rights represents the convergence of several important themes: business and human rights, the Internet freedom agenda, and the Fifth Estate. In my discussion I will touch on each of these themes in turn before offering a few suggestions for researchers and activists.

December 22, 2015
Title:
Ranking Digital Rights: Keeping the Internet safe for advocacy
Author:
Nathalie Maréchal
Abstract: The Ranking Digital Rights project is creating a system to evaluate the world’s Internet and mobile companies on policies and practices related to free expression and privacy in the context of international human rights law. In this article, project researcher, Nathalie Maréchal, talks about the ideas and events that have informed the project and the challenges and opportunities involved in taking it forward.

November 2015
Title:
Ranking Digital Rights 2015 Corporate Accountability Index
Author:
Ranking Digital Rights
Abstract: Ranking Digital Rights’ inaugural Corporate Accountability Index evaluates 16 of the world’s most powerful Internet and telecommunications companies on their commitments, policies, and practices that affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy. By opening the door for greater corporate transparency and public scrutiny of business practices, the Index encourages companies to do a better job of respecting their users’ rights around the globe. To view in-depth results, download data, and access related resources, news, and updates, please visit: rankingdigitalrights.org

March 2015
Title: Phase 1 Pilot Study: Report on Pilot Study Results and Lessons Learned
Authors:
Ranking Digital Rights and Sustainalytics
Abstract: The Ranking Digital Rights project is developing a system to rank the world’s most powerful information and communications technology (ICT) companies on their respect for users’ free expression and privacy rights. The data we generate will equip advocates, policymakers, and investors with the facts they need to hold companies accountable. It will also help companies improve their own policies and practices, and inform technology users about which companies are better equipped to respect their rights.  The project includes two phases. Phase 1 ranks Internet and telecommunications companies based and operating in countries around the world. This pilot study focused on 12 Phase 1 companies. The names of the companies examined in the pilot will not be disclosed. We plan to release a full, public ranking of 10-15 Phase 1 companies in Fall 2015. Phase 2 will incorporate software, device, and equipment manufacturers into the ranking in 2016, and may increase the overall number of companies ranked, funds permitting.

January 19, 2015
Title:
Fostering Freedom Online: the Role of Internet Intermediaries, UNESCO Series on Internet Freedom
Authors:
Rebecca MacKinnon, Elonnai Hickock, Allon Bar, and Hae-in Lim
Abstract: Freedom of expression is a universal human right that applies equally to the internet as to the offline world. The goal of this report, the third in UNESCO Series on Internet Freedom, is to shed light on how Internet intermediaries – services that mediate online communication and enable various forms of online expression – both foster and restrict freedom of expression across a range of jurisdictions, circumstances, technologies, and business models.