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Facebook Becomes Full Member of Global Network Initiative

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, May 22 2013

Facebook announced today that it has opted to become a full member of the Global Network Initiative, a group founded by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to address the challenges technology companies face when dealing with governments about issues like freedom of expression and data privacy.

With Facebook, six companies will be members of the group, the other two being Evoca, a cloud based voice recording service and security technology company Websense.

GNI sees itself as offering a code of conduct for technology companies when confronted with government demands, explained GNI Policy and Communications Director David Sullivan, in an interview with techPresident. The code would be implemented via a multi-stakeholder process where the companies sit around a table with human rights organizations, academics and socially responsible investor groups to think about how companies can operate ethically in difficult markets overseas. GNI can offer "operational guidance" by suggesting that companies get government requests in writing, advise them to minimize the impact of such requests and to challenge requests in court when necessary, he said.

In its principles, GNI outlines its commitment to the protection of freedom of expression and personal privacy free of government restrictions "except in narrowly defined circumstances based on internationally recognized laws or standards."

Another key element of GNI membership is that companies signing up agree to be independently assessed on how they are following GNI guidelines, he emphasized. "It's an element of not just talking the talk, but walking the walk," he said. This past year, Facebook had an observer membership status that allowed it to participate in some meetings and familiarize itself with the organization.

"[With Facebook] you've got a sizable chunk of the global market share when it comes to things like e-mail, social networks and search engines," Sullivan noted.

But he emphasized that one sector that currently lacks representation is telecom companies. GNI has begun a two-year collaboration with the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue to address issues of government pressure on freedom of expression and privacy with European-based telecom companies including Alcatel-Lucent, France Telecom-Orange, Nokia Siemens Networks, Telefonica, and Vodafone. "But they are nowhere near to joining up to the process that GNI entails," he said. "That's where there is a gap that needs to be filled," The current news coverage regarding American government surveillance of journalists' communications illustrates the wider significance of the issue, he explained. "That just goes to show it's not just about the Chinas and Russias of the world," added Sullivan. "There are also many pieces of troubling legislation in democracies."

GNI is currently in the middle of going through the assessment process with the existing members, Sullivan said. Last year, GNI evaluated the polices and procedures the companies had put in place to implement GNI principles, as the group's annual report outlines. The second step of that process involves looking at how the companies are implementing the principles in specific cases in practice. While that effort has taken longer than anticipated, GNI hopes to complete the process and release a report to the public by the end of the year. The assessment process for Facebook will not begin until 2015.

Sullivan praised Facebook for taking the initiative to join GNI. Citing how clothing companies have reacted to the factory burning disaster in Bangladesh, he noted that it's often not until companies "completely screw up that they join these initiatives."

"I think this is different. Facebook is taking an affirmative step in the absence of some major crisis," he said. While he noted that there has been no shortage of smaller issues involving Facebook, "they are doing this because they want to do the right thing."

Sullivan explained that GNI's strategy in dealing with problematic government policies is "that there is strength in numbers" by bringing the companies together with academics, investors and human rights groups to have an influence. He pointed out that GNI had participated in efforts to push back against a proposed Internet filtering system in Pakistan and a proposed Communications Data Bill in the United Kingdom that had been successful in getting the proposals shelved for the moment.

In an announcement about formally joining GNI, Elliot Schrage, vice president of Communications and Public Policy wrote that the step was part of Facebook's efforts at "formalizing and expanding our human rights program."

In addition to joining GNI, Schrage wrote that Facebook would be "supporting organizations and projects that promote digital due process and highlight creative global policy regimes that respect expression, support the right to communicate freely, and promote innovation."

In addition, Facebook plans to increase funding for the Access Facebook Human Rights Award and establish a project incubator in New York to provide technical and administrative support for each awards finalist.

Meg Roggensack, senior advisor for business and human rights at Human Rights First, one of the groupsthat works with GNI, said the evaluation of companies' conduct in specific cases is "really critical."

"Companies are fond of saying that they are doing the right thing...[but] it's important not to listen to what they say, but look at what they do," she said. [Facebook] has now committed to a process that can independently verify their effort and report publicly on that ... what Facebook does is set the tone for everybody else in that space."

"This is a significant commitment by Facebook that demonstrates its willingness on their part to sharpen their focus on human rights," said Bennett Freeman, senior vice president for Social Research and Policy at Calvert Investments, which works with GNI. "For all of the utility of Facebook as an instrument of freedom of expression and all of its use by democracy activists, Facebook nonetheless has faced some very specific operational human rights related issues itself, particularly related to privacy."

He said that there is a growing recognition that Internet companies face human rights related risks, though many of the specific censorship and surveillance issues the companies face are less widely well understood. "From an investor's point of view we want to be able to see companies like Facebook to be able to operate globally and virtually in every market but at the same time to observe some reasonable rules of the road around freedom of expression and privacy," he said. "From an investor's point of view ... user trust will be the license to operate issue in the 21st century. Investors want to have confidence that companies are aware of their risks and responsibilities and are operating within a multistakeholder process."

In addition to telecom companies, Freeman said Twitter would be another company that could benefit from joining GNI. "Twitter has their own approach and their own policy framework, which is laudable, but they would benefit from multistakeholder consultation and accountability and legitimacy and credibility that GNI uniquely affords," he said. "This is a good day for people who care about freedom of expression and privacy when one of the biggest players steps ups its commitment."

Twitter recently followed Google in making public government requests it has received from around the world, a step that Facebook has not yet taken. Privacy International is also coordinating an effort with other NGOs to draft international human rights obligations that governments should follow when they seek to access individuals' personal information.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.