“Shaping Global Norms by Promoting Rights-respecting Practices in the ICT Sector” by Meg Roggensack”

Photo of the Author — Expert on Business and Human Rights and GNI Academic Constituency Board Representative Meg Roggensack

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) has had a foundational impact on the business and human rights movement—helping to inform how information and communications technology (ICT) companies think about and approach human rights risk. As Dunstan Hope has noted in this anniversary blog series, the early meetings to form the Global Network Initiative pre-date the “protect, respect, remedy” framework developed by UN Special Representative John Ruggie and the ensuing UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The GNI Principles anticipated the “know and show” approach, giving ICT companies a frame for thinking about, guidance for addressing, and a platform for demonstrating their approach to human rights risks. In the GNI’s case, that frame and guidance focus on risks related to government requests to restrict or access users’ information through a set of policies and procedures to minimize risks to freedom of expression and privacy.

The foundation and process for making repeatable, scalable, and responsible decisions that Michael Samway describes also provide a yardstick for evaluating those decisions. What does responsible company decisionmaking look like?

As Leslie Harris and others in this series have noted, the challenges haven’t abated, instead, becoming ever more complex and rapidly shifting. The GNI answers that question in multiple ways – through ongoing learning combined with collaborative policy advocacy to shape rights-respecting laws and policies, and through its independent assessment process.

GNI’s work on network disruptions illustrates its unique ability to shape good practice and influence policy. GNI first confronted the challenge of Internet shutdowns in 2011, when it sought to learn from Vodafone about its response to outgoing Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s order to disrupt mobile data and communications services. Internet shutdowns were then rare but have since become a widely used tool to stifle online freedom. Those conversations led to further internal discussion, as well as consultations with the Telecommunications Industry Dialogue (“ID”), resulting in a 2016 joint-statement between the two organizations pointing out how government-ordered shutdowns undermine security and public safety while disrupting the free flow of information and economic activity. The statement urged governments to be transparent about their actions and legal justifications and to permit companies to be transparent with their users about the government’s role in service disruptions. GNI’s guide for policymakers pushes back against this worrying trend by identifying the many negative consequences of shutdowns, and by supporting efforts by member companies and civil society to press for more informed policy choices. The guide reflects significant shared learning and collective action among members, as Patrik Hiselius describes elsewhere in this series. This work helped lead many ID companies to eventually join GNI, which has strengthened GNI’s ability to produce uniquely valuable research and advocacy on network disruptions. The more recent addition of leading civil society organizations working on disruptions, such as NetBlocks, CIPESA, and SFLC, positions GNI to continue leading the global policy response to this pernicious trend.

GNI’s unique accountability mechanism complements and feeds into its learning and policy work. GNI conducts regular and rigorous independent assessments of company members, to help inform responsible company decisionmaking. The assessment process includes case studies suggested by GNI’s academic, investor, and civil society constituencies. Among specific advances in industry due diligence described in the 2013-14 and 2015-16 assessment reports are the growing use of human rights impact assessments (HRIAs) and transparency reporting on law enforcement requests by governments. GNI-member companies’ use of HRIAs has become more integrated into business processes, including to address the implementation of GNI Principles among business partners and acquired companies. GNI member companies led the sector in publicly reporting on law enforcement requests; they have been vigorous and successful advocates for legal changes to increase their latitude for disclosure.

GNI company members know that as their business adapts to change, their GNI obligations will be a benchmark against which their responses will be measured.

While the GNI’s Principles and guidelines don’t mandate a specific outcome, there is enduring power in the collective force of its membership obligations and multistakeholder engagement, in establishing a strong foundation for continuing progress in shaping global norms, and in improving company practices and promoting rights-respecting laws and policies worldwide.

Meg Roggensack is the Interim Executive Director of ICAR, an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law, and a Board Member of GNI. See her full bio here.

The GNI Blog

Missives, ruminations, and explainers from the GNI network — members and outside experts with a shared interest in freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.

Global Network Initiative

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GNI is the only multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to advancing freedom of expression and privacy in the information and communications technology sector.

The GNI Blog

Missives, ruminations, and explainers from the GNI network — members and outside experts with a shared interest in freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector.

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