“GNI: A Journey of Trust and Making Common Cause” by Michael Samway

One of the many conversations that culminated with the launch of the GNI Principles in 2008

Just over a dozen years ago, representatives from technology companies, civil society, socially responsible investors, and academia gathered — some reluctantly, most skeptically, all cautiously — to begin a collective discussion on how to address human rights risks created by global companies in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. We began with a high level of distrust and misunderstanding, not only between companies and civil society but also among the companies themselves. Cutting sharply through the tension was a shared sense that the stakes were too high, the alternative too dark, for us not to work in good faith to build something impactful and durable, ambitious and realistic.

Widespread online censorship and surveillance, especially across markets with weak rule of law, regularly denies citizens their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy — rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, regional treaties, and national constitutions. The points we negotiated as stakeholders were legal, policy, and technical ones. But, we all knew the issue of corporate complicity in a government’s violations of its own citizens’ rights was ultimately a human issue, with people’s security, safety, and even their lives at stake. So, we persisted.

After two-plus years of intensive negotiation on a complex global challenge — including unexpected pauses, U.S. Congressional and EU Parliamentary hearings and legislative proposals, participant withdrawals, and even a corporate acquisition bid between participants — the Global Network Initiative (GNI) launched in October of 2008. Ten years later we are still in the early chapters of the business and human rights story in the ICT sector. The pillars upon which GNI was built, however, remain just as essential today for any multi-stakeholder initiative on business and human rights: (i) standards grounded in international human rights laws and norms (as well as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which were developed in parallel with the GNI Principles and have since been incorporated); (ii) practical guidance for companies on meeting the standards; (iii) a forum for continuous learning about responsible company decision making; (iv) a platform for collective advocacy to push for policy change; and (v) a rigorous accountability framework to evaluate companies against the standards.

What has GNI accomplished beyond raising awareness about global freedom of expression and privacy?

The intensive engagement and trust building that has occurred since our first multi-stakeholder meetings in late 2005 has created a safe setting that allows participants to share good practices and develop creative and practical approaches to complex puzzles at the intersection of technology, business, and human rights. GNI’s company constituency has grown to more than a dozen members, and its non-company participants have grown in number, expertise, and geographic diversity, now totaling more than four dozen members. GNI’s work has also led directly to tangible, if quiet, changes and improvements in company policies, practices, and outcomes on freedom of expression and privacy issues for users around the world. This includes the use of human rights impact assessments to evaluate and then mitigate risk, transparency reporting on content takedowns and government demands for user data, clear guidelines on information disclosure to law enforcement authorities, employee training on digital rights risks and responses, and push back through various channels on government overreach regarding freedom of expression and privacy. GNI has also helped promote and craft collective advocacy efforts on important issues ranging from advice on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in the United States to commissioning work regarding the reform of the mutual legal assistance treaty regime to calling out governments that use Internet shutdowns to suppress political dissent.

What are GNI’s principal challenges today?

GNI must continue to grow the variety, number, and geographic diversity of its company constituency members by adding more hardware manufacturers and vendors, Internet infrastructure companies, and sharing-economy companies. Companies across the ICT sector are struggling with the very same challenges as today’s GNI members, and GNI must ensure that it remains open to engaging with them regardless of their size, business model, and structure. The nature of the organization creates an inherent and healthy tension where non-company actors push companies to be more transparent and to resist government practices inconsistent with human rights standards. While the resource commitment of participating in GNI is an understandable factor for start-up companies, too many medium-sized and large technology companies have been unwilling to join GNI because it requires that they undergo an independent assessment of their policies, process, and on-the-ground practices. That’s disappointing, and users around the world pay the price. GNI has worked hard to make the assessment process more cost and time efficient while ensuring that its evaluation of company behavior against the GNI Principles remains rigorous and a cornerstone of the organization.

GNI faces a world where the threats to individual rights online have grown dramatically in number, variety, and severity. In addition, new risks have emerged where governments, as well as non-state actors, have used social media platforms and online tools to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms in countries across the world. GNI is fundamentally about improving company behavior. What are companies doing to live up to the high standards agreed across civil society, companies, socially responsible investors and academics? Questions surrounding fake news, Internet shutdowns, hate speech, and election interference — to name only a few of the most vexing online problems of the day — leave GNI members, like individuals and governments across the globe, grappling with the dangerous implications while searching for causes, methods used, and ultimately for lasting solutions. For GNI, the question is what does responsible company decision making look like in light of this dangerously shifting online landscape? GNI must also decide the role it will play regarding emerging technologies and applications — 5G, artificial intelligence and machine learning, Internet of things, smart cities, digital health, etc. — and their intersection points with freedom of expression and privacy.

How can companies most effectively meet the agreed standards in GNI?

Companies must build robust internal systems of responsible decision-making: (i) committing publicly and at an executive level to human rights; (ii) supporting a dedicated and cross-functional human rights team; (iii) committing to high-level human rights principles and developing and detailed operational guidelines to support those principles; (iv) creating an ongoing internal inventory system to identify intersection points with human rights risks, then developing paths for issue escalation; (v) conducting human rights impact assessments; (vi) engaging regularly and meaningfully with internal and external stakeholders; and (vii) developing an accountability framework that involves internal and external assessment. This system architecture doesn’t give an ICT company the answer to every content moderation question or every data transfer conundrum, but it gives a company a foundation and process to make repeatable, scalable, and responsible decisions.

The need for a global organization with GNI’s unique multi-stakeholder structure focused on protecting and advancing freedom of expression and privacy online is at its greatest point in the history of the ICT sector. GNI’s members have forged a remarkable degree of trust, earning it while traveling, for more than a decade, across the peaks and valleys of collective problem-solving in deeply challenging circumstances. Trust that must be demonstrated regularly in word and deed by companies and non-companies alike. GNI has become one of the leading multi-stakeholder initiatives in any industry, increasing awareness and taking a stance on critical issues and advancing meaningful improvements to companies’ practices on human rights issues globally. 
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Michael Samway is a former vice president and deputy general counsel at Yahoo! and was a GNI founding board member. He is currently an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and leads a technology and human rights consultancy called The Business and Human Rights Group.