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LinkedIn Joins Global Network Initiative

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, March 25 2014

Linkedin announced on Monday in a press release that it has officially joined the Global Network Initiative. The company is joining Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook as members of the association of technology companies, human rights organizations, academics and investor groups that seek to find common ground for how to deal with governments on issues such as online freedom of expression and data privacy.

As a full member of the group, originally founded by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, Linkedin agrees to undergo an independent assessment process on how well the company is following GNI's guidelines focused on protecting freedom of expression and personal privacy free of government restrictions "except in narrowly defined circumstances based on internationally recognized laws or standards."

The independent assessment of Google, Yahoo and Microsoft earlier this year found that those companies were generally compliant with GNI's free expression and privacy principles, but also highlighted the transparency and disclosure challenges in the wake of the Snowden disclosures. Facebook, which joined last year, will undergo the assessment in 2015. The assessment highlighted several specific cases as examples to illustrate the degree to which the companies responded to government requests and the degree to which they invoked free speech or privacy principles to push back.

Linkedin, which has around 277 million members worldwide, had already joined GNI as an observer in 2013, and released a government surveillance transparency report in February.

"Since joining GNI as observers in 2013 we've benefited tremendously from engagement with its participants. We look forward to continuing to work together with GNI as we continue developing business practices and advocating for public policies that promote the free expression and privacy of our members and everyone who uses the Internet," Pablo Chavez, vice-president for Global Public Policy and Government Affairs at LinkedIn, said in a statement.

"I think it's a good thing that LInkedin is joining GNI, as they're expanding internationally, they're going into some difficult markets," said Rebecca MacKinnon, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a founding board member of GNI. "Part of the GNI commitment is that companies are supposed to not just make commitments but implement those commitments ... that means they actually have to put policies and practices in place in order to live up to their commitments. They have to do things like conduct human rights impact assessments ... on how they're handling government requests, how they're developing their technologies, services and operations [that] can affect the human rights of their users."

She emphasized the importance of LinkedIn's decision to join, even if does not match the membership of Facebook. "It's not like oh we only want the companies that have the most number of users and the companies with fewer users are less important ... There are a lot of companies with a lot of services and they should all be members whether they have LinkenIn-size userbases or Facebook-size userbases," she said. One of the most high-profile companies that hasn't yet joined is Twitter. " Any company whose users might be subject to surveillance and censorship should be joining, So therefore since Twitter falls within that category, it should also join, " she said.

"LinkedIn's decision to join GNI delivers a message to its users and investors as well as to governments that it is possible to address surveillance and censorship on the Internet transparently and accountably, even in some of the most challenging markets in the world," Bennett Freeman, GNI Board Secretary and senior vice president of Sustainability Research and Policy at Calvert Investments, said in the statement. "

GNI also announced Thursday that human rights and free expression lawyer Mark Stephens had been elected as the new independent chair of its Board of Directors, succeeding previous chair Jermyn Brooks.

Stephens is a London-based lawyer at the law firm HowardKennedyFSI, where he has specialized in international, appellate and complex litigation, constitutional, human rights, media and regulatory work, defamation, privacy, media, art and cultural property, data protection and freedom of information and intellectual property.

"Mark's record of achievement and dedication to human rights, freedom of expression and the right to privacy -- together with his energy and dynamism -- equip him well to serve as GNI's independent chair at this critical moment for human rights online," Freeman said in the statement.

Most recently, the GNI has expressed concerns about moves restricting online freedom of expression in Turkey and Crimea.