Reflections on the Fourth Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index
The 2019 Ranking Digital Rights Index offers valuable findings on how some information and communications technology (ICT) companies are performing with respect to their human rights policies and commitments, and in informing users and the public about these practices. The report is a must-read for ICT companies, investors, digital rights advocates, and policymakers seeking to understand how companies approach critical issues such as privacy and freedom of expression.
The Index does not cover all ICT companies, but this version adds Deutsche Telecom and Telenor to the 22 previously covered Internet and mobile ecosystem and telecommunications companies based in different regions of the world. While the report identifies a number of “persistent problems” that illustrate significant room for improvement, it also finds that “most companies have made meaningful efforts to improve [their performance].” This finding provides a glimmer of good news for an Internet ecosystem recently clouded in pessimistic shadows; and that light could help illuminate a path out of the darkness.
19 of 22 companies improved their disclosed commitments, policies, and practices related to freedom of expression and privacy. While some of this can be attributed to regulatory compliance, the fact remains that, on the whole, the global regulatory environment often lacks incentives — and at times actively disincentivizes and prohibits — company disclosures on human rights. In this context, across-the-board, even if incremental, improvement from such a diversity of ICT companies is something to celebrate.
RDR’s consistent, transparent, and respected approach deserves full credit for helping incentivize these improvements in corporate governance. The Global Network Initiative (GNI) has also encouraged the adoption of the global business and human rights norms that RDR’s approach is built on. These include the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the GNI Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. The increased interest expressed in GNI from ICT companies around the world provides further evidence of this, including the recent addition of BT as a member company and Ericsson and Line Corporation as observer companies.
The 2019 Index argues that companies must not wait for legal requirements and should take concrete actions to embrace their responsibilities for freedom of expression and privacy rights. But it also demonstrates the constraints that local legal frameworks place on the ability of many companies to be transparent with their users and the public — specifically citing the legislative trends as a basis for including more detailed recommendations for governments than in past years.
Improving understanding of the laws that mandate government access to data, content removal, and restriction of communications networks is one of the objectives of the GNI Country Legal Frameworks Resource — a collection of detailed, objective reports describing the laws that telecommunications companies operate under in 50+ countries around the world. These reports show how relevant laws and regulations can restrict and even prohibit telecommunications companies from being more transparent about government demands and restrictions. These sorts of restrictions also impact platforms and other ICT services. The RDR Index details instances, particularly with regards to requests for user data, where companies have undertaken good faith efforts to report on requests but often face strict legal limits on what they can publish.
Company responses to network shutdowns illustrate this complex environment. Although network operators frequently operate under national laws that strictly limit their ability to challenge shutdown orders, the RDR Index provides a window into how companies are increasing transparency around shutdowns, which in turn provides information that can be used for multistakeholder advocacy with governments. It is worth noting that the four telecommunications company members from GNI included in the index received the highest rankings on their disclosures related to network disruptions (indicator F10). Innovation in this arena is not limited to those companies that were ranked. For instance, Telia Company recently published its response to a service restriction order in Norway, providing useful information and helping to spur important discussions.
Beyond removing restrictions and actively incentivizing greater corporate transparency, governments should also lead by example. The index notes that governments should “publish regular and accessible data disclosing the volume, nature and purpose of all government requests made to companies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy,” and that users should have avenues for recourse from both governments and companies when they feel their rights are violated. A more symbiotic relationship between government and company transparency can only enhance the effectiveness of future legislation, allowing researchers, policymakers, and the public to better assess the effectiveness of laws as they are implemented. The report also makes the case that government bodies with the ability to compel network disruptions, content restrictions, or sharing of user data “must be subject to robust, independent oversight and accountability mechanisms” to ensure their practices are necessary and proportionate for users’ rights.
As governments around the world consider whether and how to regulate the online space while protecting freedom of expression and privacy, they would be wise to build on the progress that RDR has fostered by making human rights central to their approach and focusing on how to incentivize improved disclosure, due diligence, and remedy. Process-based regulations that maintain flexibility, while preserving (and indeed leveraging) competition, can help accelerate these improvements. The RDR Index’s findings are critical to foster more open, honest, and practical conversations across industry, civil society, and with affected users and experts alike.