Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) is a non-profit research initiative working with an international network of partners to promote greater respect for freedom of expression and privacy rights among information communications technology (ICT) companies.
RDR produces a Corporate Accountability Index that ranks the world’s largest ICT companies’ public commitments to users’ freedom of expression and privacy rights. The Index is a standard-setting tool aimed at encouraging companies to abide by international principles and standards safeguarding freedom of expression and privacy. The data and analysis produced by the Index informs the work of human rights advocates, policymakers, and responsible investors and is used by companies to improve their own policies and disclosure practices.
- In November 2015, RDR launched its inaugural Corporate Accountability Index, which ranked 16 Internet and telecommunications companies.
- For the 2017 Index, RDR has expanded the ranking to cover 22 companies, including those that produce software and devices that create what we call “mobile ecosystems.”
The Index uses a set of indicators to measure if and how companies disclose policies that affect users’ freedom of expression and privacy rights. The indicators measure disclosure across three main categories: Governance, Freedom of Expression, and Privacy.
- Governance (G): measures a company’s commitments to upholding and freedom of expression and privacy principles and standards at the corporate governance level. Indicators in this category look for companies to publicly commit to uphold international freedom and privacy standards, in line with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
- Freedom of Expression (F): measures if and how companies disclose policies that affect users’ freedom of expression rights. Indicators in this category focus on assessments of transparency and accessibility of terms of service agreements, information about terms of service enforcement, company disclosure of how it handles government and private requests for account and content restrictions, network shutdown policies (for telecommunication companies).
- Privacy (P): measures company disclosure of their policies that affect users’ privacy rights. Indicators in this category look for companies to clearly disclose their privacy policies, including what user information they collect, retain and share, and why; information about the company’s process for responding to third party requests for user information; and measures the company is taking to ensure the security of users’ information and communications.
The Index builds on standards that have evolved from more than decade of work by the international human rights, privacy and security communities. These include the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which affirm that just as governments have a duty to protect human rights, companies also have a responsibility to respect human rights. The Index also draws on the Global Network Initiative principles and implementation guidelines, which address ICT companies’ specific responsibilities towards freedom of expression and privacy in the face of government demands to restrict content or hand over user information. It further draws on a body of emerging global standards and norms around data protection, security, and access to information.
RDR developed the Index methodology over several project phases and in close consultation with stakeholders from the NGO, business and human rights communities. For more information see our methodology development page.
The Index relies only on publicly available information that can be found by accessing a company website. We expect companies to publish policies in a way that users can easily view and obtain them. We therefore do not include press interviews or media coverage about a company or a company policy in our evaluation, as these types of information are not the kind of policy-level disclosure that the Index measures.
The Index primarily measures policies—and specifically if and how well companies disclose their policies—and does not evaluate how companies implement these policies in practice. In short, the Index evaluates what companies say they do. The purpose behind this is to promote corporate transparency about the policies that impact users’ freedom of expression and privacy rights. Our approach is based on the expectation that companies should have clearly defined and clearly disclosed policies about their company’s commitments to protecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy so that users can make informed decisions about the products and services they use.
We also believe that measuring policy transparency is a powerful starting point for activists around the world to verify whether—and how well—companies’ stated policies are actually being carried out in practice. Our research serves as as a starting point for further research that compares companies’ stated practices or policies examines how these policies are implemented, or investigates the impact of these policies and practices on individual users’ lives. While Ranking Digital Rights does not track how stated policies are implemented in practice we look forward to hearing from and amplifying the work of researchers who are carrying out in-depth investigations, local testing, and monitoring, to verify companies’ statements and track how policies and practices affect users.
In 2015, RDR launched its inaugural Index, which ranked 16 Internet and telecommunications companies. For the 2017 Index, RDR has expanded the ranking to cover additional companies and services, including companies that produce mobile software and devices that create what RDR refers to as “mobile ecosystems.” As a result, RDR expanded the methodology, adding new indicators and elements to account for the potential threats to users’ freedom of expression and privacy that can arise from use of networked devices and software. The RDR team also further refined the methodology based on a detailed review of the raw data from the 2015 Index as well as consultations with stakeholders from civil society, academia, the investor community, and the companies themselves.
For a summary of key changes between the 2015 and 2017 methodology versions, click here.
For a table with a side-by-side comparison of the methodologies, click here.
RDR works with a network of international researchers to determine the answer to each question posed by all of the 35 indicators for each company, and to evaluate company policies in the language of the company’s operating market. RDR’s external research team in 2017 consisted of 28 researchers from over a dozen countries.
The data collection process consists of several steps that involve rigorous cross-checking and internal and external review. The research process for the 2017 Index involves the following steps:
- Step 1: Data Collection. Primary research team collects data for each company and provide a preliminary assessment of company performance across all indicators.
- Step 2: Secondary Review. A second team of researchers conducts a fact-check assessments provided by primary researchers in Step 1.
- Step 3: Review and Reconciliation. The RDR team examines the results from Steps 1 and 2 and resolves any differences that arise.
- Step 4: First Horizontal Review. The RDR team cross-checks the indicators to ensure they have been evaluated consistently for each company.
- Step 5: Company Feedback. Initial results are sent to companies for comment and feedback.
- Step 6: Secondary Horizontal Review. RDR team conducts a second horizontal review, drawing in feedback from companies, and cross-checking the indicators for consistency and quality control.
- Step 7: Final Scoring. RDR team calculates final scores.
Our goal was to select a representative group of companies that collectively hold the power to shape the digital lives of billions of people across the globe. To do so, we selected 12 publicly listed Internet and mobile companies and 10 publicly listed telecommunications companies based on factors including geographic reach and diversity, user base, company size, and market share. The Index examined disclosure at the parent company level as well as disclosure related to one to four of the company’s services.
For the 2017 Index we decided to include three companies—Google, Apple, and Samsung—that make the mobile devices and software products we call “mobile ecosystems.” Mobile ecosystems are the indivisible set of goods and services offered by a mobile device company, comprising the device hardware, operating system, app store and user account. These company types were evaluated together because Google is both an internet company and a mobile ecosystem company, and Apple also offers services such as iMessage and iCloud. We did not evaluate hardware attributes of devices, focusing our assessment on disclosures pertaining to the newest devices offered by those companies and their operating systems. The freedom of expression and privacy issues faced by mobile cloud data and operating systems overlap with the issues faced by traditional internet services. Additional elements relevant only to mobile ecosystems were added to some indicators during the 2017 methodology revision.
Companies are evaluated based on their publicly available policy documents and other disclosure related to a set of services. For telecommunications companies, the Index evaluated up to three services, including pre-paid mobile, post-paid mobile, and fixed-line broadband service. For internet and mobile companies, the Index evaluated up to four services, depending on the company, including services like email, search engines, social networking, video and image sharing, messaging apps, and mobile ecosystems.
Telecommunications companies were evaluated on 32 of the 35 indicators; internet and mobile ecosystem companies were evaluated on 33 of the 35 indicators. Some elements within indicators were not applicable to certain services. For a list of which elements applied to which services, see the Appendix in the 2017 report.
The Index evaluates company disclosure of the overarching “parent,” or “group,” level as well as well as those of selected services and/or local operating companies (depending on company structure). The evaluation includes an assessment of disclosure for every element of each indicator, based on one of the following possible answers: “full disclosure,” “partial,” “no disclosure found,” “no,” or “N/A”.
Companies receive a cumulative score of their performance across all Index categories, and results show how companies performed by each category and indicator. Scores for the Freedom of Expression and Privacy categories are calculated by averaging scores for each individual service. Scores for the Governance category indicators include parent- and operating-level performance (depending on company type).
- Full disclosure = 100
- Partial = 50
- No disclosure found = 0
- No = 0
- N/A excluded from the score and averages
Research for the 2017 Index was conducted from September 1, 2016 through January 13, 2017. New information published by companies after that date was not evaluated.
Many initiatives already exist to rank companies on critical issues such as carbon emissions, political spending, labor practices, and access to medicine, and they have spurred significant changes to corporate practices. While other organizations have been working over the past decade to establish human rights standards for internet, mobile and telecommunications companies, so far there has been no global ranking on these companies’ respect for freedom of expression and privacy. After consulting with many people in the NGO, corporate, investment, and government sectors around the globe, we determined that such a ranking would be a powerful tool to identify best practices and push the sector to better respect digital rights.
The Index allows users, investors, and activists to compare how—and whether—internet, mobile and telecommunications companies are making substantive efforts to respect freedom of expression and privacy. The intent is to have a constructive dialogue with companies included in the Index, as well as those not included, and to move the dialogue forward in addressing areas of concern.
Our hope is that the Index will lead to greater corporate transparency and public scrutiny of business practices, thus encouraging these companies to demonstrate greater and more consistent respect for internet users’ rights around the globe.
- Technology users can use this to inform themselves about possible risks and guide their decisions about which digital services they want to use.
- Advocates can use this information to demand more transparency and action from companies.
- Policymakers can use it to improve laws and regulations in order to ensure that they boost rather than hinder companies’ ability to respect users’ rights.
- Responsible investors can use the data—and the Index methodology more broadly—to factor company performance on respect for online freedom of expression and privacy into their investment decisions. Investors can also use the research to engage with companies and minimize risks.
- The Index provides concrete and measurable steps that internet, mobile and telecommunications companies—as well as other companies throughout the sector—can take to improve how and what they disclose about policies and practices that impact digital rights, instead of having to come up with the answers on their own.
- By disclosing information in a more easily accessible manner, companies can empower users to make informed decisions about how they use technology. This will help build trust between users and companies in the long run.
Ranking Digital Rights is an independent project that is hosted by the Open Technology Institute at New America. At no time have either New America’s board, or its CEO, or any other New America program directors, been involved in any part of the research including the selection and scoring of companies for the Corporate Accountability Index. All funding for the Corporate Accountability Index research, including for the salaries of Ranking Digital Rights staff, came entirely from several independent foundations and the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (Internet Freedom program). A complete list of Ranking Digital Rights’ funders is available here.
We receive direct funding from several independent foundations and the U.S. State Department. We do not take funding from corporations that we rank or may possibly evaluate at some time in the future. You can see a complete list of Ranking Digital Rights’ funders here.
22 was the maximum number of companies we were able to evaluate for the 2017 Index with our existing resources. We only selected companies that offer internet, mobile, or telecommunications products/services as their primary form of business. (See more about our company selection process here.)
Our most urgent need at the moment is to translate the Index and supporting materials into other languages. If you are interested in supporting the project please contact us at info AT rankingdigitalrights DOT org.
To view in-depth results, download data, and access related resources, news and updates, please visit: https://rankingdigitalrights.org
Updated and corrected March 28, 2017